I suppose we should look in on those *other* characters, even though we've only just met our hero...
"Bioforming colonization?" Bruce repeated. "I dunno that one, Helen."
"It’s sort of the reverse of terraforming," A.J. said. "Dunno who was the first to come up with it. The oldest story I read based on the idea was something by James Blish. The Seedling Stars. Basically, instead of trying to change the world you’re going to, you change the lifeforms you’re bringing to the world to fit the environment."
"So that’s why they had the big bio labs all over the place?" Jackie asked. "Trying to make an entire biosphere for Ceres?"
Helen nodded. "Actually, they had to be doing some terraforming—xenoforming, I suppose I should say—on Ceres as well as bioforming on the various species. Ceres is frozen and would normally stay that way."
Jake took up the narrative. "Right. While results are very preliminary, we’ve also located several places where it appeared they were doing excavations and, possibly, waste disposal. That’s given us a general timeline of the Bemmie presence on Ceres, at least in the sense of a knowledge of what events came first. Exactly what attracted them here we don’t know. Helen presumes that they were interested in the high water content and could somehow determine that from a distance."
"We’d already guessed how much water was here years ago," Larry reminded him. "So it’s no stretch to assume that Bemmie could do it at least as well or better."
"Okay, then we’ll assume that. Where was I? Oh, yes. The damage this base suffered in the war, unfortunately, appears to have been in the area of the original Bemmius landings. However, they first tunneled down a kilometer or so, as you know, and reached the water-ice layer. The crust of Ceres is astonishingly thin, at least in this area. Larry"—he nodded to the astrophysicist—"says it’s just enough to keep the water from all subliming away."
"Actually, my guess is that it’s at least half the stuff that’s left after it’s done a lot of subliming away—the dirt and so on, plus whatever’s accreted on the surface since," Larry put in. "Wouldn’t be surprised if Ceres used to be a few kilometers bigger and had an ice surface, then lost it over billions of years. Sort of a very, very slow-motion comet."
"Anyway," Jake resumed, "they set up and started doing a lot of excavation. It looks to me like they were pretty clear what they intended to do from the start. There are signs that expansion of the underground areas was essentially constantly ongoing. The bioengineering labs were actually laid out a long time beforehand, but not equipped and used until a lot later. Jackie looked over a lot of the things we found in some of the other chambers, and she thinks that a large amount of their engineering was going into making something to melt the ice."
Bruce sat up suddenly. "That’d take one bloody lot of power, mate."
Jackie nodded. "And there’s a lot of machines down there that might be generators. It’ll be a long time before I’m sure, but… we might finally be able to say fusion power is less than twenty years away and mean it."
"Hot damn!" A.J. said. "That’d pay for this little junket, all right."
"They’d been working on that area for a pretty long time—must have been years—before the war hit. The bioengineering labs had only been going for a considerably shorter time."
"They managed some impressive work in that time, too," Larry said. "According to some scans I had A.J. run in the critical underground areas, I think they managed to I think they managed to liquify something close to a cubic mile, as well as several much smaller volumes and were using them as testing ground for the products of the labs."
"Were they working just on what we might call ‘lower’ lifeforms, or were they engineering themselves, too?" A.J. asked Helen.
"The labs we’ve found so far seem to have only been working on things ranging from microscopic to, oh, maybe the equivalent of fish. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually intended to make modified versions of themselves; it’s one of the obvious ways to colonize." Helen looked abstracted. "Some of the modifications are interesting. There’s a whole class of creatures that appear to be adapted to sessile forms from forms that were not originally sessile. It’s going to take a lot of biologists to figure out exactly what they were doing, but this is a bonanza for us. We may be able to derive a significant portion of their genome from all this material. They’re not using DNA or RNA as we know them, exactly, but they have similar self-replicating molecular blueprints, and the work they were doing here indicates they understood that blueprint very, very well."
"Sounds like we’ve got a fair dinkum of a report to send back home. Anything else?"
"Jackie and me found what looks like another ship or shuttle bay," A.J. said. "There’s something in there, all right, but I’m still trying to figure out what. I mean, it’s got to be a ship of some kind, but it’s not the same as the model we found on Mars, or the damaged whatever-they-weres on Phobos. Once I get done I’ll be sending the data to Joe and the others and see what they can get out of it."
He looked annoyed. "What’s the problem, A.J.?" Helen asked, knowing that look of frustration.
He shook his head. "I think… there’s something almost familiar about the damn thing, but I can’t quite put my finger on it."
She laughed. "Don’t worry about it. If you stop trying to remember it, maybe it’ll come to you. Anyway, Bruce, Jake and I will finish up a report—Jackie will provide the tech appendices—and you can encrypt it and send it off to the IRI and Ares."
"Great!" Bruce gave a wide grin. "Tell you what, everyone’s got shore leave for a day after that."
They stared at him wryly. "We’re already on the shore, if that’s what you want to call it."
"Oh, right then. How about just celebratin’ with an extra Joe dinner all around?"
"Now there’s a treat, Captain!" Helen said, grinning back. Joe Buckley’s spacegoing cuisine, suitably enhanced by Maddie’s input, had become the standard for good food in space. Given that the other spacefaring nations were adopting his menus, Helen suspected that Joe was probably starting to see some considerable income from the use of his processes and recipes. One couldn’t carry only "Joe" dinners for supplies, though, so they tended to be kept for special occasions and perhaps once or twice a week, like old-fashioned Sunday dinner.
"With that as motivation, I’ll get this report finished today," Jake concurred. "Jackie?"
"The technical appendix is almost done. So start thawing out the Lobster Supreme—I’m hungry!"
"Righto," Bruce said. "Now, you blokes know I have to take Nobel back real soon—like as soon as we’ve topped off her tanks?"
"Yes, we do," Helen said, glancing at the others to make sure they all remembered. "Who’s going? You and Jackie I know."
"I am." That came from Tim Edwards, another of the original Nike crew who’d become a part of the IRI as a technician and all-around handyman. He formed part of the semi-permanent crew of Nobel.
Josh Saddler raised his hand. "I’m going, too." Josh was the youngest of the group to visit Ceres, an environmental engineer with an artistic bent who kept an eye on the life support systems both here in the Ceres base and on Nobel. His decorative wall paintings also tended to brighten any place he visited, and were always signed with a cartoonish sketched face of the type that A.J. called "bishonen" ("pretty boy"). The image was appropriate, Helen thought. Josh looked something like A.J. had when he was twenty-five (and to be fair to her husband, he still looked rather like that).
A couple others acknowledged that they’d be going. "Still… that’s going to be quite a few months knocking around that ship mostly alone. And we’ll be pretty thin around here, too."
"Can’t be helped, mate. The IRI needs us back home, an’ I can’t run the Tuna Wheel by my lonesome." Jackie tried to kick him under the table, which he managed to avoid. "Besides, you’ll need me to go out an’ bring you some more helpers, right?"
"That would be a good thing. And other replacement luxuries, for sure."
"Then just look at it as a chance to get shut of my Strine for a while," he said, grinning.
Helen and the others laughed. "Hell, that’s one of the things we’ll miss," she said. They knew that Bruce deliberately exaggerated his dialect, but that was part of the fun.
"’Strewth. You blokes just need to learn how to sling the lingo."
"No," A.J. said, "there’s something just not the same. I wouldn’t hang a faked DaVinci on the wall, and a phony Aussie just won’t cut it either."
Bruce blinked and then chortled. "Well, I’ll be blowed. Never thought I’d be compared to a priceless piece of art."
"Well," A.J. said, with that sideways grin that showed he’d gotten the response he wanted, "you certainly are a piece of work, anyway."
"Ouch. Now I know why I’m leavin’, mate. In fact, I think I’d better go right now. And I’m takin’ all the Joe Dinners with me."Helen and Jackie gasped in mock horror. "Someone block the exits!"
Yes, stop Bruce! Stop him at all costs!