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When a giant meteor crashes into the earth and destroys all life, the small group of human survivors manage to leave the barren planet and establish a new home on the moon. From Tycho Base, men and woman are able to observe the devastated planet and wait for a time when return will become possible.
Generations pass. Cloned children have had children of their own, and their eyes are raised toward the giant planet in the sky which long ago was the cradle of humanity. Finally, after millennia of waiting, the descendants of the original refugees travel back to a planet they've never known, to try and rebuild a civilization of which they've never been a part.
The fate of the earth lies in the success of their return, but after so much time, the question is not whether they can rebuild an old destroyed home, but whether they can learn to inhabit an alien new world--Earth.
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Jack Williamson published his first short story in 1928, and he's been producing entertaining, thought-provoking science fiction ever since. The second person named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America--the first was Robert A. Heinlein--Williamson has always been in the forefront of the field, being the first to write fiction about genetic engineering (he invented the term), anti-matter, and other cutting-edge science. A renaissance man, Williamson is a master of fantasy and horror as well as science fiction. He lives in Portales, New Mexico.
We are clones. A hundred years have passed since the great impact. All our natural parents lay in the cemetery on the rubble slope outside the crater rim long before the robots brought our frozen cells to life in the maternity lab. I remember the day my Robo father brought the five of us up to see the Earth, a hazy red-spattered ball in the black Moon sky.
"It looks--looks sick." Looking sick herself, Dian raised her face to his. "Is it bleeding?"
"Bleeding red-hot lava all over the land," he told her. "The rivers all bleeding iron-red rain into the seas."
"Dead." Arne made a face. "It looks dead."
"The impact killed it." His plastic head nodded. "You were born to bring it back to life."
"Just us kids?"
"You'll grow up."
"Not me," Arne muttered. "Do I have to grow up?"
"So what do you want?" Tanya grinned at him. "To stay a snot-nosed kid forever?"
"Please." My Robo father shrugged in the stiff way robots have, and his lenses swept all five of us, standing around him in the dome. "Your mission is to replant life on Earth. The job may take a lot of time, but you'll be born and born again till you get it done."
* * *
That task seemed too much for us. We were all alone, the five of us growing up together there on the Moon, the only human beings anywhere. Our world was Tycho Station, the little nest of tunnels dug below the dome into the crater rim. Our natural parents were gone forever, their world dead and left a quarter-million miles behind. I knew my natural father, the man whose frozen cells had made me, only from his image in the holo tank.
He had been Duncan Yare. I loved him and felt sorry for all he had suffered. His face was lean and haggard, furrowed deep with pain. When I looked into his eyes, I often saw a dark despair.
"Look up at Earth when you're up in the dome," he told us. "You'll see it strange and dead, all we ever knew and hoped for gone. Four billion years of evolution all wiped out. Nothing left but us." His shoulders sagged in the old brown jacket. Lips set, he shook his head. "Tycho Station. The master computer. The Robos. The live cells frozen in the cryostat.
"And you." He stopped, with his terrible eyes fixed on us. "You're the only hope that Earth can live again. That will be your job when you are grown. To restore the life the great impactor killed. You're all we have. You can't stop. You can't quit."
A ring of iron came into his rusty voice.
"Promise me that."
We raised our hands and promised.
* * *
He was only an image that flickered into the tank when the master computer wanted it there. Robos were real, the human-sized robots who had cloned us in the maternity lab and cared for us since.
Though I could feel his grief and pain, that promise often seemed impossible to keep. We were only children. Earth itself seemed unreal, only a great bright spot in our black north sky. The world of our parents was gone, all except the traces of it in the files and relics Calvin DeFort had brought to the station before the impact.
He had put us here but died too soon to record any full holo of himself. We knew him only from the videos and papers he had left, and what our other parents had to say about him. The Robos had set up a glass case in the museum to hold a few relics of him: a pocketknife, a class ring, an antique pocket watch that had been his grandfather's. There was also a diary my father tried to keep, a little handwritten book bound in cracked green leather, half the pages blank.
* * *
The dome was always wonderfully exciting when the Robos let us climb up to it. It was full of strange machines I longed to learn about. The clear quartz walls let us see the stark Earth-lit moonscape all around us. We had clone pets. Mine was Spaceman, a beagle. He growled and bristled at a black-shadowed monster rock outside and crouched against my leg. Tanya's cat had followed us.
"Okay, Cleo," she called when it mewed. "Let's look outside."
Cleo came flying into her arms. Jumping was easy, here in the Moon's light gravity. My Robo father had pointed a thin blue plastic arm at the cragged mountain wall that curved away on both sides of the dome.
"The station is dug into the rim of--"
"Tycho!" Arne interrupted him. "We know it from the globe."
"It's so big!" Tanya's voice was hushed. She was a spindly little girl with straight black hair that her mother made her keep cut short, and bangs that came down to her eyebrows. Cleo sagged in her arms, almost forgotten. "It--it's homongoolius!"
She stared out across the enormous black pit at the jagged peak towering into the blaze of sunlight at the center. Dian had turned to look the other way, at the bright white rays that fanned out from the boulder-strewn slopes far below, spreading beyond the landing pads and gantries and hangars, on across the waste of black-pocked dust and gray broken rocks that reached away to the black and starless sky.
"Homongoolius?" Dian mocked her. "I'd say fracta-bulous!"
"Homon-fractabu-what?" Pepe made fun of them both. He was short and quick, as skinny as Tanya was, and darker. He liked to play games, and never combed his hair. "Can't you speak English? O posible español?"
He was learning Spanish from his holo father.
"Better anglais than you." Dian was a tall pale girl who never cared for pets and tried to know everything. The Robos had given her dark-rimmed glasses to help her read the old paper books in the library. "And I'm learning Latin."
"What good is Latin?" Cloned together, we were all the same age, but Arne was the biggest. He had pale blue eyes and pale blond hair, and he liked to ask questions. "It's dead as Earth."
"It's something we must save." Dian was quiet and shy and always serious. "The new people will need everything."
"What new people?" He waved his arm at the Earth. "If everybody's dead."
"We have the frozen cells from thousands of people down in the cryostat," Tanya said. "We can grow them again when we get home to Earth."
Nobody heard her. We were all looking out at the dead moonscape. The dome stood high between the rock-spattered desert and the ink-black shadow that filled the crater pit. Looking down, I felt giddy for an instant, and Arne backed away.
"Fraidy-cat!" Tanya jeered him. "You're gray as a ghost."
Retreating farther, he flushed red and looked up at the Earth. It hung high and huge, capped white at the poles and swirled with great white storms. Beneath the clouds, the seas were streaked brown and yellow and red where rivers ran off the dark continents.
"It used to be so beautiful," Dian whispered. "All blue and white and green in the old holos."
"Before the impact," my father said. "Your job is to make it beautiful again."
Arne squinted at it and shook his head. "I don't see how--"
"Just listen," Tanya said.
"Please." My Robo father's face was not designed to smile, but his voice could reflect a tolerant amusement. "Let me tell you what you are."
"I know," Arne said. "Clones--"
"Shut up," Tanya told him.
"Clones." My robot father nodded. "Genetic copies of the humans that got here alive after the impact."
"I know all that," Arne said. "My Robo told me. We were born from cells frozen before the great impact that killed the Earth. I saw the simulation on my monitor."
"I didn't," Tanya said. "I want to know."
"Let's begin with Cal DeFort." Our Robo parents were all shaped just alike, but each with a breastplate of a different color. Mine was bright blue. He had cared for me as long as I remembered, and I loved him as much as my beagle. "Cal was the man who built Tycho Station and got us here. He gave his life for your chance to go back--"
Stubbornly, Arne pushed out his fat lower lip. "I like it better here."
"You're a dummy," Tanya told him. "Dummies don't talk."
He stuck his tongue out at her, but we all stood close around my Robo father, listening.
"Calvin was born in North America, in a place called Texas. We're looking at Asia now, but you can find it on the maps. That was back before anybody knew about the asteroid, but he was used to bad things coming. He was crippled in a school bus accident, and had to learn to walk again. A tornado killed his parents--"
"Tor what?" Arne demanded.
"Look it up," Tanya told him. "Or ask your holo father."
"A wind storm," my robot father said, "They were bad in Texas."
"What's wind?" Arne wanted to know.
"Air in motion," Tanya said. "Look it up."
"Cal was buried in the wreck of their house," my Robo father went on. "When he got out of the hospital, his aunt brought him to live with her in an old city called Chicago. He grew up there. The day he was seven she took him to a museum where he saw the skeletons of the great dinosaurs that used to rule the Earth. The huge bones and great teeth frightened him.
"She tried to tell him he was safe. The dinosaurs were truly dead, she said, killed by a great object out of space that struck the coast of Mexico. A film about them frightened him more. Not to worry, she told him. Big impacts came millions of years apart. But he did worry.
"A colony on the Moon could double our chances, he thought, if something did hit the Earth. He trained for an early Moon station that was planned but never built. That's where he learned about the Robos. They were self-directed robots, designed by military engineers for rescue and repair in contaminated areas too dangerous for people. He organized the Robo Multiservice Corporation to buy the rights and reprogram them for civilian use."
My father's gray holo face had no expression and his toneless words ran on as if read from a book. Arne fidgeted, making faces at Dian's Robo where it stood motionless beside the ladder pit in the middle of the floor, teasing it to move or speak, but DeFort's story held the rest of us.
"The Robos made him a fortune, and they were perfect for the Moon. He sent them here to prepare it for the colonists. Better than the human astronauts, they require no air or food, no rest or sleep. They suffer no harm from low gravity or high radiation. They could build and repair themselves.
"But the Patagonian impactors--"
"Patawhat?" Arne broke in.
"A swarm of falling rocks," my father told him. "They blazed around half the Earth and struck the South Atlantic. None of them were huge, but they raised a tsunami that washed far into South America, drowning cities, killing millions. That woke his old dread of a greater impact. It also set off a financial panic that nearly ruined his corporation and forced him to give up his plans for any large Moon colony.
"Instead, he set his Robos to work on Tycho Station. He wanted a place where we could survive anything that happened, and keep our science and art and history safe. The Robos run on fusion power. They found water, frozen in the rubble and dust at the bottom of the polar craters where sunlight never strikes. Heavy metals are rare here, but they salvaged metal from the old spacecraft that had brought supplies. They found nickel and iron where a big meteorite had struck. They're still busy here."
"Where?" Arne asked.
"Down in the shops and hangars." My father gestured at the leveled flight field out below the crater rim. "Safe from radiation and minor impacts. Caring for the station. Caring for you. Standing by for any command from the master computer."
"Our boss machine," Arne muttered. "It thinks it knows everything and never cares what we want."
"So what?" Pepe shrugged. "It's got us here to do our job. To bring the Earth back to life."
"If we can." Very soberly, my father's image frowned. "The station was a complex and ambitious project, expensive and difficult to build here on the Moon. DeFort set up a twelve-year plan for it. The big impactor caught him by surprise, years too soon. The station was never fully finished or supplied."
"Impactor?" Tanya stared up at him, her black eyes wide. "What was it, really?"
"A ten-mile chunk of interstellar rock. DeFort had the telescopes finished. The master computer was watching the sky, but the big bolide came out of the north sky, away from the ecliptic, where nothing should have been. It grazed the sun and got deflected toward Earth, coming down in the sun-glare where the telescopes were blind."
Copyright © 2001 by Jack Williamson
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