"Fuck!" Paul "Spudis" Spiegel said as he realized what was wrong. "We're not going to make it."
Spudis was staring, not at a fuel gauge or altimeter or any dashboard read-out -- A New Hope didn't have any -- but out the window at what he and Tyler "Tycho" Powe had sent themselves hurtling, somewhat prematurely, towards on a one-way trip: the surface of the moon.
"We knew this'd probably happen," Tycho said. "We weren't able to make enough fuel."
"We were so close, man. All because of one fucking guard."
The ship shuddered as if to emphasize their plight. The moon's gravity had hold of it, so at least they weren't going to die adrift in space, slowly suffocating in their little tin can. No. They were going to crash.
"I love you, man. I'm sorry." Tyler wrestled a hand free from the tight confines of his seat and harness. His limbs were numb from two days like this, but he wanted to grab his buddy's hand for the end. Spudis took it, but turned to look Tyler in the eyes and shook his head. Had he had a change of heart? Figured out a brilliant way to save them?
"Nothing to be sorry for. This isn't the end," Spudis said. "It isn't."
And then they crashed.
Spudis regained consciousness first, waking to a headache but no other pain apart from the wound in his calf from the doberman's tooth that was still embedded in it. The safety harnesses Tycho had insisted they install and use, harnesses that bound them up like babies in swaddling clothes, had kept them safe and alive.
Or at least they'd kept Paul alive.
"Yo. Tycho. TYCHO," he said, shaking his head to clear it.
Tycho said nothing.
A faceted jewel winking mockingly at mankind from the lower-right quadrant of the moon, Tranquility City sat empty in the night sky, waiting for inhabitants as it had for some 25 years. Politicians insisting that the colonization effort would start back up soon came and went with promises unfulfilled; conditions earthside kept deteriorating and more pressing matters always cropped up. Resource crises. Famines. Wars. Religious arguments. Environmental degradation.
Soon the knowledge and the will to continue existed only in small, deeply encrypted bits of what was left of the internet, mostly in the form of a giant info-dump of technical specifications and study results uploaded by a few soon-to-be-ex NASA employees in a rush before that agency was eliminated for good. Hobbyists and dreamers had rejoiced in secret and begun to plan, to speculate, to imagine.
But only a few isolated crackpots actually tried to do anything.
Such were Tycho and Spudis. Just children when the NASA info-dump happened, they had grown up in a world for which the robot-built Tranquility City represented the high-water mark of society's folly. Most shook their fists at it when they could be bothered to look up at it at all. The uninformed and the office-seekers who pandered to them used it as an example of the waste of resources that had caused all of the world's current problems. That no earthly materials except for those in the robots sent up to build that city had been used was just so much irrelevant data.
Tycho and Spudis, though, were into such irrelevant data. They were into it a lot. They spent most of their teenage years learning all they could from the info-dump, exercising, and tinkering.
A mostly-abandoned airplane hangar became their workshop and their first source for raw materials. The ship that would be christened A New Hope was built as much from cannibalized airplane parts as anything else.
There were no test flights, which would draw unwanted, possibly fatal attention. The boys were trusting their schematics, their 3D prints of early craft from the Smithsonian's collection, and the gigabytes and gigabytes of data analyzing and criticizing every design new and old ever to come out of Huntsville and Houston and California -- and anyplace that ever hurled a hunk of metal into orbit.
Then there was the matter of fuel. It had quickly become obvious that "ALice" -- a fuel comprising finely powdered aluminum and ordinary water ice -- was what they'd need, which meant a series of daring raids on a local recycling plant. Foil and soda cans were still made, but closely monitored by a corporate-government complex that no longer had easy access to the cheap products of Haiti's bauxite operations after a revolution put a group in power there that imposed such strict environmental regulations on the island that the mines had shut down. Similar shortages of other raw materials led, in North America, to compulsory recycling and reuse -- and draconian security protocols on recycling plants.
It was on their last raid on the plant that Tycho and Spudis were finally, almost, caught, and that Spudis took a guard dog's savage bite to the leg. Their last load of aluminum went unground and uncombined, which is why A New Hope's maiden and only voyage had ended in a violent impact instead of a gentle landing in the Sea of Tranquility.
"TYCHO!" Spudis screamed again, frantically struggling to free himself from the straps and webs that had kept him immobile for the crash.
"What the hell..." Tycho muttered at last. "Ugh. Where are we?"
"We're here, man, we're really here!"
"We made it to Tranq City?"
"Well, we made it to the moon anyway. I don't know how far we are from the city."
"What are we waiting for?"
"Well, for one thing, I wanted to make sure you survived. I wasn't feeling the Robinson Crusoe thing."
Tycho just laughed and started working his way out of his harness.
"Hurry up, man. We're losing air. Get your helmet on."
Spudis had won the coin toss when they were 15, and so it was he who staggered out of the remains of A New Hope first. The latest man on the moon's first words on setting foot there were not as profound as those of the first.
"Ow, my freaking leg hurts!"
"It'll heal, man," Tycho said, following him out of the wreckage. "If we survive here."
"Guess the radio works, then," Spudis said, tapping on the glass of his space helmet.
"Hey, man, we're in luck. I can see the edge of the solar fields from here," Spudis said, turning around to share his excitement with his friend. "Oh, you freaking lunatic!"
Tycho was cavorting on the regolith, having his first fun with one-sixth gravity and a "next generation" NASA surplus space suit that even let him turn a somewhat clumsy cartwheel.
"Ha ha. Lunatic. Why have I never heard that before," he said as he walked several steps on his hands.
"Well, yeah. But, you know, stop screwing around. We better try and salvage our stuff."
The pair's gear had been stowed as tightly as themselves, but some things fared better than others. The steel containers with a month's supply of water and NASA surplus space food were mostly intact, and Spudis and Tycho reckoned they could save most of the seed, at least what wasn't now scattered and mingling with the lunar dust. The electronics... would have to be examined more closely when they were at leisure in the city, as would the bent wheel on the stationary bike that, hooked up to a generator of their own design, had powered so many of their web searches and kept the lights on in the hangar back home.
But the robots had done their work well here. Where there were solar panels -- and the original colonial plans for Tranq City called for a hell of a lot of them, mostly to create power to be relayed back to earth via microwave -- there would be electricity. And from where Spudis and Tycho and the crashed A New Hope stood, there seemed to be quite a lot of solar panels.
"I wonder if any of the robots are still working," Tycho wondered as they sorted through what to take on the first haul.
Robots, untouched for 20 or 30 years and left to manage the wear and tear and dust-clogs on their own do not, on the whole, fare well, and these had worked very hard indeed, once. Programming glitches, mechanical failures, an AI that had gone slightly mad in its isolation, all can combine to interesting effect, as Tycho and Spudis were soon to discover.
While the pair were still exulting over the amount of mass they were able to carry across the lunar mare and through the rows of solar panels, they were being observed most carefully. But they didn't realize this at first.
What they noticed was that a lot of robots were now moribund; the first one they saw lay decrepit and dust-covered next to a panel it appeared to have been in the process of repairing, a once-new panel of moon-manufactured glass still clutched in its manipulator.
Tycho and Spudis put down their burdens and moved to examine it more closely. It was, after all, their first time actually seeing one of the "bots that built the moon." Tycho excitedly brushed the lunar dust from its control panel. Sure enough, an Uqbar Model 27-C. They had a 3D print of it back in the hangar, but that was just plastic and it didn't work. Neither did this, but still...
"Wow!" Tycho said.
"Come on, man, we gotta get moving. Time for that later. After all," Spudis said, looking ahead at the faceted dome looming in the near distance, "We're spending the rest of our lives here."
Neither of them noticed the feeble light that had begun to glow on the Uqbar's sensor panel.
"Just a couple more trips," Spudis said, pleased at the growing stack of salvage they had piled up next to the entrance ramp that led down into Tranq City. They were delaying gratification; they would finally go in and explore when the hauling was done.
"Let's get the electronics next. I really want to get the radio fired up so we can send our signal to the Luna-bes back home."
"Ok, I guess the topsoil can wait. Maybe we can even get the cart fixed."
"Now that's what I call thinking!"
As they resumed trudging amongst the solar panels that surrounded the dome on all sides, something stalked them.
And soon it was joined by its fellows, with no sound of their passage through the panels and the dust to warn these newcomers to what had been a robot-only world of their presence.
Intent on their purpose, Tycho and Spudis continued not to notice the small army of bots that had assembled to follow them back to the wreck of A New Hope.
They rummaged through the cargo hold once again, still unaware -- until Spudis, who had paused to admire the view of Earth this part of the mare currently afforded, noticed their pursuers.
"What? Hey, look, I'm sure I can straighten this wheel out. We're golden!"
"Whoa. There's your bots."
"Why are they acting like this?"
"Maybe... waiting... maybe for instructions?"
"Um. Then why approach with their claws up and snapping like that?"
The first robot, a little taller than a human, closed in on Spudis and grabbed viciously at the instrument panel of his suit. Spudis swatted the claw away with enough force to knock the robot off balance, but it quickly recovered and came at him again.
Another menaced Tycho. Struggling not to panic, he took in the field of approaching bots with an anxious glance. The bot nearest him swiped at his suit's panel just as the other had gone for Spudis's, but this one was more successful, coming away with most of the monitor. Tycho instinctively clutched at his chest, but could feel nothing through his gloves.
The robot that had attacked him turned around, the monitor and a cluster of dangling wires firmly caught in its claw. Bursts of purposeful-sounding noise assaulted Tycho's ears as the bot sent some kind of signal to its fellows.
The Uqbars were always described as "temperamental" but he wasn't sure this was quite what was meant. While he watched, another bot swiped at the oxygen tank on his back.
"They want the equipment, I think!" Spudis said, barely audible through the bots' communications.
Tycho eyed one of the containers that housed all of his radio and microwave gear, glad it appeared to be sealed tight but worried that it might attract the bots' notice.
"Well that's great but what the hell we gonna do?"
Spudis smacked away another pair of claws worrying at his own tanks.
Tycho froze. There was a hissing noise. He had thought the bot had gotten nothing vital but what if --?
"Spudis, I think I'm leaking."
"Dude, I peed myself already. Don't worry. That's what the astro-diapers are for."
"No, I mean air."
"Shit." Spudis bounded over to help his friend -- and got an idea.
The bots seemed pretty much earthbound -- or, rather, moonbound. And they weren't that much taller than humans...
"Jump over them! Quick!"
"What the --?"
"Look!" Spudis said, bounding over the top of a would-be assailant. Its claws snapped closed on nothing and, more importantly, were too stubby reach up to make another try as he sailed over. Spudis landed gracefully and immediately jumped again before one of the other bots in the crowd could get at him.
Tycho didn't need to be told again. Grabbing an electronics case, he mimicked his friend, making a giant leap for it, then another, then another.
The pair continued to bound between the rows of solar panels, gaining distance on their confused pursuers. Soon they were next to the moribund bot they had first discovered, now partially animated but still rooted to the spot where it had originally gone dead.
Behind the bounding pair, the hive mind of the small swarm of lunar bots had come to a decision on what to do next. Uqbars were versatile machines, modeled partially on fleas.
And like fleas, they could leap.
Soon they were gaining on Tycho and Spudis.
The stacks of metal crates and plastic containers hove into view as Spudis felt the first swipe against his oxygen tank. A claw ripped into the leg of his suit and tore into his calf, ripping his dog bite wound open even wider in the process. Now he'd be losing air, too.
Tycho was at the entrance to the tunnel that led to Tranq City, flailing at the lever that had probably not seen action in 25 years.
"I can't move this alone," he said, gasping. "Get up here."
It took their combined force to work the dust-clogged lever that released the door. With metal claws looming near, they heaved on the crank that would open that door and let them in. Slowly, agonizingly, the door began to rise.
They didn't even try to get it open all the way. As soon as there was room for them to squeeze under, they did. But the bots clustered behind them, their arms and bodies clanking loudly against the metal.
"Go, get the inner door open. I have an idea," Tycho said, tugging at the back of his suit. Spudis didn't wait to argue and raced down the ramp.
Tycho heaved with all his might and tore the oxygen tanks from his suit, ripping frantically at the hoses and clamps until they were completely free. He shoved the apparatus under the door.
The robots backed off, content, for a moment, with this prize. It was just long enough for Tycho to crank the door closed again.
He dashed down the ramp.
"That was a helluva run, wasn't it?" Spudis said, grinning and helmetless in the city's entrance gallery.
"Well yeah, but..."
"But what? Just rest here with me a minute. We're gonna be okay."
"All our stuff's still out there, though."
"What are a bunch of robots going to do with crates of water and dippin' dots?"
"What are we going to do without them?"
"And Spudis -- what about in here. There are probably robots in here."
"I have an idea, though," Tycho said, brandishing the case he'd held on to at all costs during their escape. He opened it. An ancient shortwave radio -- so ancient it used vacuum tubes -- and a jumble of other equipment of various vintages tumbled out.
"If this works, we'll be okay, maybe. We'll survive this, but, uh, the rest of our lives will be really, really boring if nobody else joins the party."
"Whatever, dude." Spudis sighed. He had a pretty good idea of what Tycho was planning and briefly imagined a life without anything to read or any games to play -- or any information they didn't already have in their own heads and shuddered, but quickly realized they had no choice. Drawing deep, dust-scented breaths of dry and stale dome air, he watched as his best friend built a jury-rigged EMP emitter.
"Man, I knew we were gonna be pioneers, but I didn't think we were gonna be, you know, pioneers," he joked weakly.
"Better than dead," Tycho said, wrapping coils of wire around one of the steel columns supporting the gallery's roof. "Which we'll be if the bots kill us or if we can't get at our supplies without the bots killing us."
"But wait. We haven't even explored the dome yet. There are supposed to be greenhouses..."
"Supposed to be. You wanna take that chance?"
A skittering sound caught Spudis' attention. It was coming from the other end of the gallery. What else could it be? Spudis swallowed hard and looked back at his friend, who had stepped back to admire his quick handiwork.
"No. Do it."
The skittering stopped.
Many thanks to Christopher Lee Butler, aka Isoban, for the artwork accompanying this story.