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Chapter 14

Desert Seed

          Na would have cried, if he had tear ducts, as he and Ulixis settled into the rose-colored clouds of the gas giant's southern equatorial belt. Lately he had wondered if they would ever see real clouds again. Neither he nor Ulixis had chosen to sleep much since the loss of Nemo. But this planet's sun had beckoned them with a steady light, only slightly dimmer and more warmly yellow than Suol.
          Ulixis spoke gently to Na. "Try not to worry about Nemo." They had left the remains of their friend buried in a makeshift ice cave deep on moon-3, until the time they could attempt to restore his core and reactivate his consciousness. "He is as safe back there as he would be anywhere."
          "I know. Though I can hardly help missing him. Part of me doesn't understand why he doesn't just wake up when I shake him."
          Ulixis sighed, as she recalled friends she had left so long ago. "Do you realize that simion miners probably reached the Jopian system more than one thousand jopes ago?" She couldn't understand why they had received no transmissions from home, save a few bursts of unintelligible garble, for such an incredibly long time. Perhaps the narrow communication beams had been misdirected, or messages inadvertently erased while they slept. Not likely. Perhaps their brethren had simply forgotten them, or thought them all dead. "The zone between Terra-4 and Jopitar should have been ideal for the simions to colonize – plentiful ice, minerals and metals in the moons, asteroids and comets, at such a low gravitational cost, and with adequate suolshine. I wonder if they have abandoned Aerth altogether, or turned it into a large park."
          "I rather doubt it. And surely the octos would have opposed any simion expansion into their domain."
          "Only if the simions tried to force their way. Which would have been absurdly foolish. The octos could hardly have objected to an equitable distribution of resources."
          Na wondered how well they really understood simion beings. He almost expected one to emerge from a passing cloud. "Funny how we have come so far, only to talk about the simions."
          "Especially when we have so much work to do. Though I think we should continue to stay together, and not separate, even if it takes twice as long to set things up."
          Na was relieved by the suggestion. "I couldn't agree more. Are you ready for the preliminary dive?"
          "Yes. Foremost, we need to confirm that we are not wasting our time here."
          The duo began their descent, along a northeasterly path that would span the stormy belt north of the equator, and penetrate to the base of the potential biotorus. Flying side by side, separated by a few body diameters for safety, they mapped the currents and cloud structure, as they sampled the composition, temperature and pressure of the air.
          The damp hydrogen gas smelled erotically sweet to Na. How strange, to feel pressure against his skin once again, the quick buffeting of turbulence. The taste and feel of the heavy wind triggered a wave of long forgotten memories, and he visualized a band of reys plunging through twilight. Na found himself spreading imaginary wings to break his fall. It was several fliqs before he realized that Ulixis was falling far behind.
          "Slow down!" she shouted. "Why the haste?"
          Na kooomed a burst of electronic static. "Sorry. I seem to have some inappropriate responses buried away in my mind."
          "Do not we all." Ulixis sounded almost too understanding, as if she had been hiding some of her own reactions.
          The explorers probed for any sign of life as they angled downward, through rolling layers of cool drenching water clouds, into an open steamy zone below. But none was found. The further they traveled, the more ponderous the pattern became to Na. Rich fountains of silane sprouted dreamily from the hot soup at the deepest stretch of the passage, peppering the airscape with delicious seasoning. But the feast had no substance; the notes of the dinner melody were flat. For no fleet-winged herd grazed manna here; no stealthy serpent pack lay in wait; not a single thicket of tangled plants floated between the vertical rivers of fire. Na was filled with a gray sadness. Such a familiar, and yet so alien a place was this.

          When they rose out of the clouds after completing a one-kew circuit, Ulixis was encouraged but puzzled. "The general circulation certainly seems conducive to life," she opined.
          "Then why does the planet appear completely sterile?" Na questioned. "At the very least, prebiotic chemistry should have evolved here."
          "That is true. A layer of order should naturally separate from the underlying chaos in such an atmosphere." Ulixis groped for an explanation. "Perhaps the axis of a nearby supernova just happened to be aligned with this system? That could have channeled enough radiation to exterminate even complex chemical systems."
          "Or maybe there was an unlucky string of supernova blasts. They are much more common here than in the outer spiral arms."
          "The inner rocky planets appear free of terrestrial life as well, at least from this distance. And remember those bizarre markings we sighted on the moons of the outer planets?"
          "Yes, they could have been created by shock waves." Though they would find little direct evidence to support it, the supernova hypothesis temporarily provided a convenient hook on which Ulixis and Na could hang many of their worries concerning the new world.
          Ulixis paused barely a moment. "I believe we are justified to proceed to the next phase. The planet appears suitable for colonization."
          Na signaled brusque agreement. "There won't be another supernova in this sector for the foreseeable future, if my charts are accurate."
          The pair promptly accelerated toward the innermost of the planet's moons. Even from a distance, they could sight the plumes of innumerable volcanoes rising from its torn crust, wracked incessantly by powerful tidal forces exerted by the gas giant below.
          "Look at those veins!" Na shouted excitedly, as they swept in for a closer inspection.
          Ulixis could see the thick lines of rich ores crisscrossing the satellite's surface, linking yellow-stained volcanic vents and ink-black molten pools. "Yes, this place should be perfect. There is plenty of raw material and chemical energy. Processing this stuff should be simple." They had been hoping to cannibalize one of the moons for their needs, and this tormented wasteland was the least suitable for any other purpose.
          Na and Ulixis changed course, back toward their planned base on moon-3. They had selected this satellite earlier, based on the stability of its crust and orbit, and its reasonably convenient location. Though not of the highest quality, there was an adequate local supply of raw natural resources – the outer 15% of the body was largely water ice, with a few rocky areas that protruded to the surface from a silicate mantle. The moon promised to make an excellent site for long-term storage, and for administering the colonization of the main planet.
          The travelers alighted on an open patch of dirty ice a few rohs later, just outside the entrance to Na's tomb on the shore of one of the rock islands. The surface of the surrounding ice ocean was heaped haphazardly into low, motionless waves, as if tossed with great force from many directions. A few stone and ice boulders floated partially submerged in the ice offshore. Everything appeared to be coated with a thin, broken layer of frothy gray dust. The distant sea color changed to a brilliant white, then a sooty maroon toward the eastern horizon.
          "I think we can go ahead with the constructor seed preparation," Ulixis suggested. "Moon-1 seems fertile enough; it should not need any preliminary cultivation."
          "There's a silicate outcropping on that far ridge," Na gestured. "I'll go up and prepare the seed cores." Na moved swiftly up the gentle slope from the beach, stopping in front of an abrupt ledge of pink rose quartz that had somehow found its way there. With some regret, he aimed a negon beam at the exquisite formation, and fired.
          The negon beam consisted of a superposition of short-wavelength negative- and positive-energy waves, with zero net energy content. As the negative-energy component momentarily neutralized a volume of rock, the positive-energy vibrations transformed it into a structure programmed by Na. In this case Na fashioned a fist-sized silicon-based receptacle for housing 64 microscopic cellular units he planned to manufacture. Most of the intricate processing was done subconsciously, though Na deliberately monitored general aspects of the operation. It was easiest, but not necessary, to start with silicate rock containing appropriate impurities, since fine structures could be created in a single pass using the negon beam technique only when the target material already contained sufficient atoms of the desired types. Excess atoms of silicon, oxygen, and other species were simply driven off.
          When the container was finished, Na attached it to the face of the ledge, and fired a hairline negon beam into the adjacent rock. Now he fashioned, one at a time, the intended microscopic, silicon-based spherical cells, each containing a delicate lattice of tubules and electronic pathways. As soon as a cell was completed, it was whisked away and secured in the storage vessel.
          Na secured the package of tiny cells in a small compartment within his hull, and gingerly transported the prizes back down the hill. He found Ulixis hovering above a pool of dark, rippled ice in silence, contemplating the wild, star-studded sky. "Any problems?" she asked.
          "No. Though I've only checked out one of the units. I thought you should retest it, and do the others too, to confirm my own processing."
          "Good idea. We were both pretty beat up back there." Ulixis gestured with fading discomfort toward the galactic core. "Would you like to start imprinting the constructor template as soon as I confirm a good cell?"
          "Sure. You should probably be the one to verify that, too. We certainly don't need a rogue mutation right now."
          At the heart of each cellular unit was a nucleus containing a spiraling silicon memory. Analogous to the SNA of a Jopian biological cell (or DNA in Earth cells), this structure could be programmed to control all cell functions. A template was any complete set of instructions that could be encoded into the memory. The most common templates were blueprints for growing semi-organic creatures, referred to as creatoids, that developed from single cells much as biological organisms. A constructor creatoid was designed to seek out and process raw ores, and use the resulting stock to construct specified devices. When placed in a suitable growth medium, a cell imprinted with a creatoid template would begin to reproduce itself, forming an expanding shell of identical, omnipotent (in a biological sense) cells. At an appropriate stage the shell would fold into itself, generating a variety of tissue layers. Later the cells in the various tissues would differentiate, to form specialized modular organs, and ultimately a mature creatoid, ready and willing to work. The entire process took about one thom, under favorable conditions.
          Ulixis established a remote link with the cells through their container, and quickly identified a good one. Na then tied in, and began his task. The nuclear imprinting process was straightforward but tedious, taking an entire roh for a single cell. By the time Na was done, Ulixis had already finished examining the labyrinthine structures of all the other cells. "I have selected the best seven remaining units for imprinting," she informed Na. "Would you like to take a break? I can validate your work while you relax. Then I would like to switch jobs, and imprint a few cells myself."
          "I'm sure ready for a change. Until you're set, I think I'll explore the ridgeline. Maybe I'll find a vent." Na felt a sudden twinge of panic. "Don't worry, I won't go far."
          Na took off, and skimmed along the crest of the thin backbone of finely pitted grey stone that seemed to meander pointlessly through the frozen sea. Its otherwise flat lines were occasionally broken by a cliff of pink, green, or blue quartz-like rock. The ridge finally dove beneath the ice surface after several kilurets, and Na shot up to get a better perspective. From an altitude, the island appeared to be only the tip of a hidden mass, which had barely mustered the strength to clear the ice. In the distance Na could see the subdued rim of an ancient meteor crater. Its plastic contours had slowly slumped back toward sea level over the millennia, until now the crater was barely discernible. Perhaps the scars of ancient wrongs healed in time on this world. The sky above the horizon was pitch black, nearly as dark as in deep space, punctuated with myriad pointlike stars and irregular patches of faintly glowing nebulae. The local sun, a brilliant but small disk spanning only one eighth of a degree, pierced the darkness about half way to the zenith, casting short but sharp shadows on the muted landscape. Directly overhead, the crescent-phase jopian planet that dominated local affairs hung like a god, fully eight degrees across. Its prominent bands of white and yellow-tan clouds were so inviting.
          A peculiar glint on the northern horizon caught Na's attention, and drew him in that direction. As he approached with some trepidation, a fresh meteor crater came into view. Several kilurets across, and engulfed by an eerie crimson tide, its gleaming walls rose sharply from a flat floor of hard clear ice, then fell back in undulating folds to sea level. A maroon mass of rocky rubble barely poked above the smooth floor near the crater's center. The structure could not have been more than a few thousand jopes old. Na felt an unexpected chill, then chuckled to himself. Why would anyone want to be in a place like this? A faint flash caught his attention in the direction of the rock island, as a tiny pebble slammed into the surface at full speed, unhindered by an atmosphere. Na swung around, and hurried back.

          Na had been glad when the tedious work of programming and confirming the eight selected cells was finally completed. He found it hard to believe that the constructors would actually enjoy such labor. Fabricating cocoon pods that would protect and help nourish the nascent creatoids, and implanting the seeds in them, were much simpler chores. Now he and Ulixis each cradled four of the unimposing charges deep within their hulls, as they sped toward the planned farm on moon-1.

Omen's sulfurous moon-1, in half-phase facing upward, with a volcanic plume emerging from the upper limb

          "Do you still feel all right about separating?" Ulixis asked cautiously.
          "I think so. We have to start acting normally sometime. We've already had a few short separations, and haven't detected any unusual threat since arriving in this system."
          "Good. Then I will sow the northern hemisphere as planned. Meet me at the south pole when you are finished."
          Ulixis broke away, and vanished into the variegated backdrop of the complex moon below. Na felt somehow short of breath as he steered alone toward a promising lagoon near 35° south latitude. He tried chanting ancient rey verse to himself, and the anxiety subsided. A sheen of fine sulfur crystals covered his skin as he landed on a stony outcropping. A monstrous geyser filled half the sky on the opposite side of an open ink-black lava lake. Na quickly cleared a hole three rets deep in the solid rock using a coarse negon beam, then added several fine tunnels into the molten sulfur only one ret away. When satisfied, he softly dropped one of the seed pods into the hole, and plugged it. A wave of exhilaration swept through him, as he pondered the innocent clump of dirt left lying on the surface.
          Na planted the remaining pods at roughly equal intervals of longitude, in order to distribute them fairly uniformly over the southern hemisphere. His mate did likewise in the north. Ulixis appeared exceptionally peaceful when Na rendezvoused with her.
          "What now?" Na challenged lightly.
          "I certainly do not want to wait around and watch our crops grow," Ulixis replied in mock disgust.
          "We could always sleep," Na teased.
          "I have a better idea. We have been working long enough."
          Ulixis and Na shot skyward, playing a variant of the ancient game of octan tag as they headed nowhere in particular. Their spiraling path slowly veered in a lazy arc, high above the orbital plane of their new home, inward toward the radiant central sun.

          Na and Ulixis decided to make a tour of the inner planetary system while they waited for the constructors to grow and multiply. The local sun was already about 10% older than Suol, and depleted somewhat in elements heavier than helium. There was no small inner planet analogous to Terra-1, and a solitary mid-sized terrestrial world orbited midway between where Terra-2 and Aerth would have been. Its thick carbon dioxide atmosphere supported a runaway greenhouse effect, making the surface an absurdly hellish place. Due to its current proximity, this planet was a logical first stop.
          "I can assure you there is no life down there," Ulixis asserted as she and Na soared over the sulfuric-acid cloud tops. A single large moon orbited the failed Aerth in lonely solitude, ancient volcanic cones rising high above arid, airless planes. One of its faces, pockmarked with a gigantic ringed impact basin, was locked in orbital synchrony toward its larger partner. Na and Ulixis playfully darted between the craggy peaks of the circular mountain chain as they moved in for a closer look.
          "Will we ever find a use for this place?" Na wondered aloud, as he stopped to hover over a deep, narrow crater.
          "I doubt it," Ulixis replied at once. "We have everything we need at our new home." Her mood soured as she peered into the pitch-black pit Na was investigating. "Let us get out of here. These terrestrial haunts make me somehow … uncomfortable."
          The explorers flew on, through the heart of the planetary system, passing by the central star as closely as they dared. Its hot, vacuous wind messaged their skin with tingly warmth. A single planet occupied the expanse between the orbits of the innermost planet and their jopian base. Na and Ulixis hadn't yet observed it in any detail, since it had been obscured on the opposite side of the system, lost in the glare of the local sun. Na could scarcely believe his sensors as they approached.
          "Can you confirm what I am seeing? The atmosphere appears to be mostly carbon monoxide, nitrogen and methane, with some ethane and other hydrocarbons. Much of the surface is graphite rock, covered in tar! Whatever is a carbon planet doing in this system? Worlds like this aren't supposed to be here."
          "But they are common in the galactic core. It must have been ejected from a carbon-rich system, and somehow captured by this one."
          "Into an almost perfectly circular orbit? What are the chances of that?"
          "However it happened, one thing is certain – it did happen, and long ago, during the early development of this system, or there would still be signs of disturbance."
          "Well, its rotation is retrograde, which is consistent with capture."
          The pair entered the sunlit atmosphere, tinted orange by photochemical smog, and swept low over a mountain range. Glistening outcrops of pure diamond lined several of the ridges.
          "Are those clouds," Na queried, "billowing up on the far side of this range?"
          "Indeed. Though I cannot yet make out their composition."
          "It can't be methane – the temperature is much too high."
          "Neither can it be ethane or propane. The air pressure is too low. Heavier hydrocarbons would work."
          As they cleared the mountains, Na spotted a flat expanse in the distance. "A sea! According to my sensors, it contains some pentane, hexane, and heptane, plus a lot of octane. Now we know what the clouds are made of."
          "The liquid is similar to what the simions used to call 'gasoline.' I believe they used it as fuel for their ground vehicles, but were running short when we departed Suol. Imagine what they would have thought to see an ocean of the stuff."
          "Or the diamond ridges we just crossed. Wasn't diamond rare back on Aerth, too?"
          "Yes. The simions had a strange fascination with carbon worlds like this. I once read a simion story about a fictitious carbon planet called Malzen≠≠gren. It even rained gasoline there. Simion explorers used spacesuits and aluminum 'umbrellas' to stay dry." Ulixis couldn't help but chuckle inwardly.
          "Interesting, how the surface temperature here is about the same as on Aerth, despite the larger distance from the local sun. The methane must help moderate the climate. The pressure is remarkably similar, too – only twice as large."
          "Let's check out that swampy area adjacent to the sea. I recall that the tar pits on Malzen≠≠gren were teeming with life."
          Na and Ulixis came to a stop hovering over a dark slough. Deep channels filled with liquid hydrocarbons wound among low mounds matted with a tarry … something. Squat black stumps, studded with pores and short spines, projected from the mats.
          "Those protrusions could be primitive plants," Na offered eagerly.
          "Or advanced plants, for all we know."
          "What kind of metabolism could plants possibly have, in this atmosphere?"
          "On some carbon worlds, plants are known to use sunlight to combine carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons into oxygen-rich foodstores. These are broken down, when needed, to release energy."
          Na scanned what he thought was a barren hillside rising from the back of the swamp, and did a double-take. "That slope is covered with large plants!"
          Ulixis turned her attention to the hillside. "Yes, indeed. They are so crowded, we must have mistaken the forest canopy for the ground."
          "Look, along the edges, the largest plants are umbrella shaped, and black as night. They must absorb every bit of light available. I'd like to remain here a while, to see if anything comes along."
          "All right. Since you will be keeping watch, I think I will switch to internal mode. Rouse me if anything interesting happens."
          Both explorers activated their chameleon responses, and quieted themselves. Ulixis withdrew into herself, in order to compare various scenarios by which the carbon planet might have found its way here. Na shifted into a hypersensory state, directing his attention outward, with minimal interal chatter. The rohs passed, as the sun sank toward the western horizon, and stray showers pitter-pattered by.
          A few nims before sunset, a disturbance caught Na's attention in one of the channels, and he woke Ulixis. Both watched in fascination as a shiny-silver, snake-like body broke the surface. It glided smoothly along, then abruptly submerged and disappeared. A second similar creature suddenly emerged, then two more swimming side-by-side. All were heading in the same direction, out toward the open sea.
          Na spoke by radio waves to Ulixis. "See that last pair? One of them is much smaller than the others – a child, perhaps?"
          "That is my impression. I wonder if these creatures are social?" Excitement was evident in her electronic voice.
          As the sun set, the edges of the channels began to churn with activity. Hoards of tiny wormlike creatures wriggled onto the shore, unfurled delicate wings, and flew away in a greart swarm, toward the inland forest. Then Na noticed movement at the nearby hillside. "Look – more flying creatures! These are much larger, and seem to be streaming directly out of a cliff."
          "There must be an opening there, into an underground cave. Listen, they are using ultrasound, most likely to locate prey."
          Dusk quickly turned to night. Eerie howling and hooting noises carried from the forest.
          Ulixis spoke up. "It seems that not all planets in this system are sterile, after all. We should set up a surveillance post here, to study the ecosystem."
          "And otherwise leave the planet alone?"
          "Well, yes, that is standard practice, especially until we can determine if there is anything approaching intelligent life."
          Na took in a deep sample of the air. "The methane here almost reminds me of the high cloud tops back home," he mused.
          "You must be pretty homesick to think that," countered Ulixis. "The hydrocarbon mix stinks worse than a thicket of skunkolu!"
          Both friends kooomed, and turned their attention in unison toward the heavens. The clouds and smog had temporarily cleared. Three asteroid-sized moons hung in a dark purple firmament, punctuating a berserk swath of stars that filled half the sky. On the western horizon, a bright beacon invited them home.
          "No matter how hard we try, we cannot get away from planet-3," Ulixis observed. "Even here, it is nearly the brightest thing in the night sky." She paused for a few moments. "Somehow, I find comfort in that."
          "Let's name planet-3 after Nemo," suggested Na impulsively. "After all, he is the reason we chose this particular system." They had been debating names for the past thom, but none had really felt right. By convention, designations such as New Jopitar or Jopitar-2 were discouraged for new octan colonies.
          Ulixis was pleased. "I think Nemo will like that, when he's revived. Do you have any concrete suggestions?"
          "That's the problem. I'm stuck on variations of Nemolo and Nemoter."
          Ulixis thought for a few moments. "How about Omen?" she offered.
          "An appropriate twist. I've always been fond of inversions. Strange I didn't think of it." Na paused. "Wouldn't your ancestors have thought the connotation significant?"
          "Undoubtedly. It is good that we no longer rely on superstition to cope with the uncertainties in life."
          Na koomed nervously to himself at the remark, then brightened. "In the same spirit, let's call our star Los."

          A robust, jointed tentacle tentatively poked out of the liquid sulfur at the edge of the lagoon, and probed for a hold on the adjoining ledge. Finding one, a second tentacle emerged, then a third and fourth directly out of a fissure. Then they pulled. Rock shattered along the shore, as the fledgling creatoid hauled itself up and out of its thin protective stone casement, into the naked honesty of the vacuum. As the dust dispersed, a metallic gray cylindrical body, nearly 15 rets long and 5 rets across, emerged standing solidly on the rubble. The body was divided into three equal segments. Each sported a pair of odd tentacle-legs, one limb on either side, as well as a pair of retractable, multispectral eyes, all of which now stared up at the sky.
          The reverie did not last. The creatoid shook itself, then instinctively scurried along the bank toward the east, until it found a suitable spot for its purpose. It hunkered down, and began to fulfill its destiny, fashioning a new constructor seed.
          Na and Ulixis watched with relieved delight from a lofty perch as their progeny emerged one by one from the fuming swamps. Once they were satisfied that the creatoids were behaving properly, the pair left to explore the outer reaches of the planetary system. Each of the constructors had been programmed to procreate eight identical offspring from seed, then manufacture multipurpose observation/biochemical synthesis stations that would self-launch into Omen's atmosphere. Data collected by one generation of these stations would affect both the design and the dispersal pattern of the next. The stations would eventually begin to alter Omen's atmosphere chemically, then sow microscopic life in preparation for multicellular creatures. The creatoid population would grow exponentially in time, multiplying by a factor of eight roughly every 1.5 thoms, the average intergenerational interval. The constructors were programmed to stop reproducing when the surface density reached about 30 units per square kiluret. This should take only 10 generations, or 15 thoms, and result in a peak population of some four billion individuals. At this stage the constructors would devote themselves to designing and fabricating devices needed for the colonization effort, slowly devouring moon-1 in the process.

          The surface of moon-1 was crawling. Except for one sector toward the south pole, which was littered with corpses and eerily still. This region had been populated by a mutant line of creatoids, that had lost contact sensitivity and begun to reproduce out of control. Suicide genes hidden in their genetic machinery had been activated, killing the defective units from within. Na watched with some ambivalence as healthy constructors moved in from the periphery, to salvage and replace the dead.
          "Is it right that we create such creatures to do our dirty work?" Na queried Ulixis. "Look at them slaving away down there, happy as can be."
          "They may do very sophisticated work, but the quality of their consciousness really is not much unlike that of the social ensects. We certainly do not violate any of their personal desires. They are programmed to want to perform the designated tasks. By design, they barely even have a sense of self."
          Na wondered if such moral logic applied to the creatures they created. What if the octos and reys were themselves being used for some ethically correct purpose, that they were unable to comprehend? Na koomed internally, when he realized that this was not unlike the standard octan view (more or less) for the reason they existed at all. "But what if by accident one of the creatoids did develop an independent spirit? Would it be free to go?"
          "Has it ever happened?"
          "I cannot recall a single documented case. Of course we are forbidden by social contract to intentionally create such a complex, independent consciousness from scratch. The taboo has been strictly enforced for millennia." Ulixis paused, to give Na a chance to respond. "If I may change the subject, I am concerned about the nearby red dwarf we spotted last thom. It turns out to be gravitationally bound to Los."
          "Do you mean Nemosis?" Na asked dubiously. They had tentatively given the interloper that name.
          "Yes. I have determined that it periodically passes through the heart of the Los comet cloud."
          "Then it could be responsible for a periodic comet bombardment." Na's mood shifted. They had witnessed plenty of evidence for a recurrent onslaught among the outer two planets. "This could help explain the utter lack of life throughout the system."
          "Indeed. With the exception of Malzen≠≠gren, of course." Ulixis and Na now referred to planet-2 by the name of the carbon world in the old Aerth story. Though simion, it conjured fond memories of the old home system. "I think we should move up establishing the sentry system. We could send a contingent of constructors to moon-1 of planet-4, and start them working on it right away." About half the mass of Omen, planet-4 was surrounded by a bizarre array of easily accessible moons, many of them captured asteroids and comets. "There could be a billion observers and interceptors in place within 15 thoms, and an additional billion every 1.5 thoms after that." These conscious platforms would be distributed over three gigantic shells, centered on Los: one beyond the orbit of planet-5, the last sizeable world; another between the orbits of planets -4 and -5; and a final fallback group just beyond the orbit of Omen itself.
          "It must be remarkable to see the interceptors respond to a threat." Na immediately worried that he tempted fate by saying this, though he dared not admit these feelings to Ulixis.
          "I have only seen recordings. When the observers sight a sizeable body on a dangerous trajectory, the interceptors swarm. It reminds me of immune cells moving against an invading germ. One thousand interceptors could land on an intruder in a single wave, and quickly organize an engine to deflect its path or otherwise neutralize it."
          "Would they ever attempt to destroy such an object, using nucleonic fusion or matter-antimatter explosives?"
          "Only rarely, due to the high-velocity debris created. There is enough interplanetary space junk speeding around already. Just look at the pits in my skin. The sentry stations should be programmed to vaporize any debris encountered during routine operation."
          "I'd like to be responsible for starting the project," Na offered. "I could surely use a break from this place." He paused, as a nagging concern returned to his mind. "Before I go, there is one other business item to deal with. We need a calendar system."
          Ulixis' mood brightened. "So we really are creating a colony here? I was beginning to feel like such a doomsayer."
          "I think it appropriate to designate the yad we first planted creatoids on moon-1 as date zero. After all, that is when the colony truly began."
          "So be it," chirped Ulixis. "I hereby declare this the jope +0L, of the new Los system."


Rays from the sun
Crimson on cobalt
stalk the dawn sky.
They have for years.

Morning star and crescent moon
Diamond and ghost
lean toward the promised light
decade past decade.

A point of brilliance
breaks the east mountains.
Impossible luminance -
fire inside ice.

Sparrows sing.
The shadows deepen.
They will for years.