I remember reading this probably in some anthology collection. As far as I can remember it is set in the near future (not on an alien planet or anything like that). An infiltrator is trying to gain access to some facility in the desert or the mountains. He gets in and finds a large hangar or a cave with huge cylinders with sealed biomes in them. He investigates and each cylinder as a completely sealed biome/ecosystem and people living in them unaware of the outside world. I think they were just raised in there and weren't even aware the outside world exists. The infiltrator breaks into one or two of them and I think trips some defense mechanism that destroys the entire operation.

That's as much as I can remember. Likely written in the late 80s onward.

  • 2
    Another one I would like to read. Nov 9, 2022 at 12:16
  • 2
    Arg. This is another one I can completely describe, including why the investigation, approximately where, a description of the "hanger," the cylinders, the why of the cylinders, the failed attempt to break in, and the final conclusion of the story. I just can't remember what the name is.
    – DavidW
    Nov 9, 2022 at 14:14
  • There's a Sheffield about biodomes, that might be what's looked for.
    – Andrew
    Nov 9, 2022 at 16:33

2 Answers 2


That could be Taklamakan, by Bruce Sterling. 2 freelance infiltration agents equipped with a bunch of advanced bio-tech rock climbing and spy gear infiltrate a massive cavern under the Taklamakan desert. In it, they find 3 fake spaceships. In one ship, everyone really believes they are on a star voyage to somewhere else and live at a medieval level of technology. In another, they are aware they are not in space and put a huge amount of effort into breaking out with enormous ballista. Everyone in the third died from a fire. Security and maintenance of the cave is handled by nano-assembly technology that breeds robots in a virtual space, and then builds them in real life in some kind of assembly goo, making very weird robots.

The infiltrators speculate that the cave was built by robots at the Sphere's behest (a Chinese hegemony), the probably forgotten about.

The two infiltrators are a woman who had her gonads removed (deactivated? it was unclear) to render her a "neuter", for an alleged 5% metabolic advantage, and an older man at the tail end of his career. They are both rock climbers at heart, and there are strong rock climbing themes.

Ultimately, the younger infiltrator dies saving a small child who was part of a break out attempt from ship 2, and the older one breaks into the peaceful spaceship, and intends to live out his remaining life there. He disposes of his colleagues body in the assembly goo at the bottom of the cave. After several years, the computer spawns an army of climbing robots that intend to escape the cave themselves. It is implied the computer was inspired by the climbing technology it consumed on the body of the infiltrator. The older infiltrator leaves the cave at this point, with the wave of machines.

  • Thank you! This is definitely the story, and you saved me the effort of posting comments with all the additional details I recalled.
    – DavidW
    Nov 10, 2022 at 15:06
  • Awesome, now I can read it. You can check out a collection it's in here archive.org/details/yearsbestscience00gard_7 Nov 10, 2022 at 15:07
  • It's also available (without registration) in the Internet Archive copy of Asimov's, November 1998. Exactly as I recall, down to the orbital weapons firing on the breakout.
    – DavidW
    Nov 10, 2022 at 15:30
  • Thank you everyone! That's the one!
    – gerym
    Nov 10, 2022 at 21:37

This may be Charles Sheffield's Destroyer of Worlds originally published in Asimovs in 1989 and republished in collections and anthologies.

From this review

An exciting mystery involving a biologist’s disappearance, the private detective hired to find him, the wealthy philatelist she enlists to help her, and the fanatical group of space enthusiasts who are creating their own biosphere. (I was surprised to learn the first sealed, self-sustaining biosphere was created in 1967. I have no reason to doubt Sheffield on this.) Most of their biospheres are less efficient than Biosphere One – Earth. But one is more efficient and threatens to take over Earth’s ecology if it is loosed.

  • Upvoted, but after reading this, I am not sure it is the story sought by the OP. The elements of the inhabitants being unaware of the outside world and the entire operation being destroyed are not present. The "infiltrator" also does not break into any of the environments. Nov 10, 2022 at 0:10
  • 1
    Thanks for checking; there's some prospect of misremembering on the part of the original poster, but we'll see.
    – Andrew
    Nov 10, 2022 at 0:20

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