ORIGINAL FICTION: "Question and Answer (Part 1)" by Jonathan Andrew Sheen

Jonathan Andrew Sheen
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Pieter Robbins walked slowly across the icy grey plain. Behind him, a cloud of disturbed dust and ice particles hung suspended in the aether, falling almost imperceptibly back toward the surface of Neried. The cloud formed an insubstantial snake-like trail back toward the mining base's lifesystem, spreading and thinning perhaps a hundred yards from the airlock door.

Within and beyond the airlock, slightly metallic-tasting air drifted unused, awaiting his return. No-one else breathed the lifesystem's air -- none had since the day he'd arrived, four-and-a-half years before, to relieve his predecessor. The walls were metal, blank and austere for the most part, sporadically decorated with faded posters and torn notices, only a few of which weren't spurious.

Here and there, affixed by magnets to tables, desks and walls, sheets of paper rustled in the breeze from the air vents. In the rest room, a loose sheet of toilet paper, wafting near the ceiling, seemed more-or-less content to stay there. In the puny force of Neried's gravity, it would take most of a day to fall, and the nigh-imperceptible draft from the floor vent held it aloft.

When Pieter walked these corridors in velcro slippers, the rip, rip, rip sound of his footsteps echoed hollowly off the walls and ceiling, mocking his solitude. But now the only sound -- were there someone there to hear it -- was the soft whirring hum of automated electronics at rest, and the occasional rustling sigh of its mechanical breath.
A listener standing beside Pieter now, as he walked across the Nerien tundra, would hear still less: perhaps a ghost of a Thump-Thump-Thump, transmitted through the soft and dusty ground by his footsteps. Pieter's suit massed 863 pounds -- and he'd paid dear to have each and every ounce of it transported here with him -- but on Neried, it weighed less than five, empty or full.

The suit was a thing of beauty: The 99000 series industrial chassis from Saab-Scania of Sweden, with state-of-the-art Wellington TDI mercury-based balance control systems, power-assisted joints, gravity-compensation systems allowing normal movement in anything from .0025 to 4.75 Gees, and Gerit-Quealy 6400 precision motion micro-translators allowing the wearer to spot-weld on a microchip as if it were an industrial cross-beam. The power plant was a Grenier 675 furnace with the GB2D stepdown system from L'Officier Space Gear of Quebec. Control feedback systems from British Leyland -- who also made all the safety equipment except the Spinne autosealant rover from Bavarische Motores Werken -- fed into the Texas Instruments 99/4000 computer system, which automaticaly translated the operator's motions and gestures into commands to the suit systems, and sent data and camera views to the twenty Sanyo 382 LCD moniter screens bordering the helmet's visor from above and below.

It was his pride and joy, every system, every interface, every motor, circuit, sensor and joint, a work of art painstakingly designed by the finest craftsmen in the solar system. He'd maintained it lovingly, and at considerable expense, for as long as he'd owned it, almost ten years, installing KoriCo Nova floodlights, the new NavStar Position-Direction finder, and the Sharp 266/9AV Audio-Video Laserdeck.

Pieter walked steadily ahead, the suit's power-driven joints resisting his every move, fooling his muscles into believing that Point-Five per cent Gee was normal earth gravity. The motors whirred and buzzed in his ears, and his breathing echoed harshly: the uncanny silence with which he walked across the face of Neried was a product not of fine engineering, but of vacuum.

There was no real reason for him to be out there, no real job that needed to be done. But there was make-work, which was more than could be said for the station.

The problem with setting up robot mining stations was simple: Any automated operation needed automatic repair and control systems to correct the damage time would certainly do the installation. No matter how hard one tried, though, one couldn't anticipate every contingency, couldn't pre-program for every possible way things could go wrong. In order for a mining station to be self-sufficient, an adaptable, self-programming computer was required, to troubleshoot the unanticipated contingency. Only one such device existed: a human being.

The economics of that answer were tricky, though. In the asteroid belt, and among the moons of the outer planets, lifesystems were expensive, and shipping a live human body was hideously moreso. Again, there was an answer, this one the result of a mathmatical formula: One human being, alone, in a supervisory repair and troubleshooting capacity, stationed at each remote base for anywhere from three to seven years -- depending on the location -- to be paid five million dollars per year on completion of the contract. As things stood, no one concern had more than twelve such OutSpacers at any given time, and rarely had to pay off twice in any given year. The profit margin -- provided station efficency was kept above a certain minimum -- was low but acceptable, and any lower pay-scale would be insufficient to attract the caliber of personnel the job required.

To the right man or woman, though, a long stretch in the Outsystem meant a single score, all at once, that would set him or her up for life, in comfort, and usually at a profit. Some wished to buy luxuries: homes, cars, yachts... others wanted businesses.

Pieter fell into that group. The six-year stretch on Neried would net him a healthy down-payment on an in-system ship, something that would carry enough freight and passengers between the O'Niell stations and the lunar colonies -- with occasional hauls to the terraforming bases on Mars and Venus -- to pay off the mortgage within eight years, and then the solar system would be his oyster.

It had looked perfect on the CRT screen: Pieter had reckoned without the boredom.

For all that they were incomplete, requiring a human presence to backstop them, the automated repair and control systems that governed the base were very good indeed, prepared to respond with inhuman speed and efficiency to any but the most Rube-Goldberg of mishaps and malfunctions. In the four-and-a-half years he'd been on Neried, Pieter had actually worked on perhaps six occasions, the most extreme and time-consuming of which had occupied him for a day and a half.

He'd arrived fit and sharp, acute of mind and quick of eye. He was a small man, about five-foot-eight, with the kind of wiry muscularity that made tall men wary. He was almost completely covered with curly red hair, and his slightly florid features had a certain Irish look about them: odd, as his parents were German -- though on second thought, those blue-eyed features could also be Prussian.

Now he seemed to be all soft edges, inside and out, fuzzy and out of focus, withering away through atrophy. There were, of course, recreational facilities, but they were neither numerous nor terribly good: no room in the budget. The database library was fairly extensive, but no match for his voracious reading and viewing habits, and after four-and-a-half years, he had read all the books, watched all the vids, and taken all the pornographic sensies he had, as many times as he possibly could, and the year-and-a-half that remained of his hitch stretched before him like an eternity.

Pieter topped a slight rise, and began shuffling down into a crater, huge and deep by Neried standards. His footsteps became more uneven, the dust cloud appeared in inttermittent, interconnected puffs. It was, in miniature, the same effect that had built the crater in the first place. Pieter stopped and looked toward the center of the dish-like depression. A nublet of stone there protruded from the frost and dust. The suit's shoulder cameras aligned on it with a spoken command, and he glanced down at one of the LCD screens.

"Radar imaging, screen one," he said. A dish antenna on one of the suit's shoulders oscillated slightly, and there was a subtle hum as the TI computer engaged the JPL Computer-Imaging program. The screen cleared the camera view, replaced it with a graphic line-drawing: Outline in white, areas in a grey that darkened in ratio to the density of the stuff. The rock was an irregular blob of near-black amidst the varying pale greys of the dust. As Pieter had expected, four-fifths of it was under the dust, hidden from view.


A scale promptly appeared on the screen. The rock was approximately six feet by three by four, and of normal density for a rock. It massed about four hundred pounds. No problem.

He shuffled through the dust to the stone.

It was a meteor, of course, a chunk of ordinary stone that had lived an extraordinary life, tumbling through the eons across the depths of space, perhaps from the inner system, or from the Oort cloud, or from beyond, until it had collided ignominiously with Neptune's lesser moon. Tiny micrometeorites had pitted its surface over the millenia: geological acne.

Pieter squatted by it, pointed a gauntlet at the dust at its base.

"Vent waste gas, outlet two-twelve," he said.

A valve on the gauntlet opened with a hiss, and dust and frost exploded away from the stone, completely blocking his vision.

"Outlet close," said Pieter.

The hiss was gone. "Closed," said the suit computer, its voice a pleasant computer-generated baritone. There was an optional contralto, but the ludicrous sound of the love-goddess voice oozing from the behemoth suit annoyed Pieter to no end.

He checked the radar again. The single jet of dead air had been enough: three-quarters of the rock stood exposed.

He reached out, grasped it in his gauntleted hands, and lifted. It came easily, weighing only about two pounds in the minuscule gravity. He examined it carefully, first assuring himself with deep-radar and thermal scans that it was of no value, then finding its center of gravity, and adjusted his grip along its long axis.

He gave a few spoken commands. Numbers and schematics danced on other screens.

He studied the readouts for a moment, smiled, nodded. "Augment motion accordingly, please."


Pieter adjusted the stone on his shoulder, took a few running steps. This time, the power-driven joints worked with his muscles, rather than against, boosting his speed well beyond any an unaided human could achieve. Icy dust exploded away from his boots, his footsteps ten, fifteen, twenty feet apart.

He kept his eyes on the radar screen. There was a small marker there, blinking orange, and a distance readout, counting down fast.

"Acceleration nominal," said the suit's synthesized voice. Pieter nodded and the suit sensed the motion, and wagged the shoulder cameras up and down in sympathy until the computer's context-recognition center perceived it as a non-command.

The distance readout hit Zero, and his shoulders curled, as he threw the rock, forward and up, with all the strength he and his suit could muster.

The dust from his last step had enveloped him, but on the radar view, the stone rocketed up and away, toward the horizon and beyond.

"Projection, please."

The computer considered for a moment. "Velocity and vector are nominal. Orbital insertion in forty-three seconds."

Pieter smiled. "I don't guess we need to worry about that rock anymore."

Another screen came to life, flashing the words, "Input Error B/1964: No Command Format."

Pieter ignored it, and after a moment, the screen wiped. It happened every time he talked to himself.

The simple fact of the matter was, he hadn't needed to worry about the rock anyway. He'd started the project by clearing away the rocks that blocked the paths of mining robots. Even that much had been unnecessary, for even the simplest among them was programmed to drive safely around obsticles. That had been at the start. Now he was far from the robot routes; like the last fifteen, the rock he'd just injected into orbit had been small enough for the robots to drive over even if fully exposed, much less mostly buried.

But, it was something to do. Until he ran out of rocks, anyway...


The message was waiting on his comm screen when he returned.




Pieter stood for a moment, mute and still, staring at the screen -- then moved, swiftly. The screen exploded into a million tiny shards, miniature glass knives that flew in a perfectly spherical blossom through the room as his thrown wrench sizzled and sparked among the circuitry behind it.

The room lights dimmed for a moment, then brightened again as the main computer cut the comm screen from the power circuit.

Pieter straightened slowly from behind the chair, where he'd ducked as soon as the wrench had left his fingers. He stared for a long time at the damage he'd done.

"My God..." he whispered, then swallowed, shook his head. "My God! What am I...?" He shook his head again, slowly, his hushed voice trailing off into nothing.

A small, wheeled maintainence robot rolled into the room, drove around him -- with a polite, "Excuse me, Mr. Robbins," as the built-in sensors detected a human presence -- and extended a probe to examine the wrecked comm screen. It hummed quietly to itself for a moment, probe poking here and there amongst the wreckage, then rolled to a nearby computer station, extended a hard-link plug, and connected into the mainframe interface.

Another moment's whirring and buzzing, and an automatic repair robot wheeled into the room, past Pieter -- "Excuse me, Mr. Robbins." -- and began swiftly detatching and disassembling the shattered comm screen. The first robot extended a vacuum attatchment, began cleaning up glass shards.

The repair robot paused, turned, holding up Pieter's wrench in one of its many small mechanical hands. "This is yours, Mr. Robbins."
Pieter stepped forward and took the damning tool. His face flushed.

"Uh... Thank you."

"Why were you attempting to repair the comm screen?" The voice was flat and emotionless. "Diagnostics showed no malfunction."

Pieter looked studiously at the ground, embarrassed for no sane reason. To call the question "routine" would be a gross overestimtion of itent: it was a mere programmed backup, run automatically when human troubleshooters acted in the absence of automated alarm data, in case diagnostics were malfunctioning; it was the high-tech equivalent of the little voice that had told him to engage his aircar's safety restraints back on Earth.

"There was no malfunction," he murmured, so quietly he feared for a moment that the robot would ask him to repeat himself. But it merely looked at him for a moment, blank acknowledgement while it processed the data, and turned back to its job -- "Excuse me, Mr. Robbins." -- leaving Pieter to his thoughts.

It was perhaps a week later that Pieter began seriously working with the crystals.

Neried was tiny and distant, and while a casually-expended probe had revealed it to be a surprisingly dense body (6 grams/cubic centimeter), richer in gold and platinum than anyone had expected, it was most notable for a new discovery: Kapek crystals.

Discovered by Andrew G. Kapek in 2013, Kapek crystals were superconductive at any temperature, of very narrow wavelengths of electronic energy along very specific internal pathways with great fidelity. Because of this, they looked hopeful as a basis for extremely sensative scientific instruments, which was enough reason to set up a mining base.

While they seemed to hold great promise in the area of very fast precision instruments, it also seemed to him that by using slightly different wavelength, one could "program" any given paper-thin crystalline lattice to act as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of printed circuits. The amazing complexity of the resultant macrocircuit would be a step forward on a par with the invention of the silicone chip, telescoping incredibly complex applications into an astonishingly compact form. In theory.

The idea had occurred to him one day -- a few months ago, if the truth be told -- while he was making his usual pointless inspection -- for if anything was wrong with any station equipment, computer diagnostics would have informed him -- of the precision extractor. The precision extractor was a device which sonically vibrated Kapek crystals free of the rocky nodes which contained them, then inspected them, sorting by size and quality -- even the reject bins were classified into two categories.

A year earlier, he'd have made a note of his speculation, entered it in the company computer, and let it go at that: he wasn't an R&D man, although he could probably make logic, context-recognition, and memory boards. It simply wasn't his job. But it wasn't a year earlier, and Pieter was just bored enough to raid the bin of Class B general-failure crystals -- rejected by the precision extractor, but perfectly servicable -- and give the project a shot.

He started with a memory board: it was the simplest to design, easiest to build.

It took him about six weeks, using the suit for its precision-instrumentation gear, to make the first macrocircuit board. It wasn't until then that he realized he had no way to test it.

It was a rule everybody knew about, written after one of the earlier OutSpacers had popped his cork and tried soup up Ganymede station's linear accelerator by patching the mining plant's waste-heat into the main power assembly. It had taken a full repair crew eighteen months to clear out the rubble, and start rebuilding. The rule was simple. Put company equipment -- any company equipment -- to any use except that for which it was provided, and forfiet all -- repeat all -- pay and bonuses. It was right there in the contract, in black and white, and the company attornies were very carefull to call attention to it before contracts were signed. All scrupulously fair and legal.

So it was perfectly simple: no company computer. No computer, no test, and he'd just spent six weeks building a precision doorstop, on a station that was all hatches. That simply wouldn't do.

Linear thinking: it took Pieter another day and a half to find a suitably powerfull computer that wasn't company property.

He was sitting on the single bunk in his slightly cramped quarters, toying vaguely with the idea of trying to jerry-rig his collection of eighteen calculators and digital watches into a small logic board. Of course, to do that properly, he'd have to use the suit's microtranslators--

The suit's computer-driven microtranslaters!

He spun, almost banging his head against the small drawer-space that protruded from the bulkhead above the foot of the bed, and stared at the Holo in the corner of the room: Himself and the suit, his small arm as far 'round its waist as it would go, its huge one carefully pre-positioned to appear to be resting companionably over his shoulders. He'd had it taken within a week of buying it, using up the last of his antarctic command re-up bonus to do it. It had been weeks before he'd been able to send copies to family and friends.

The logo on the bulging chest and backpacks had still been bright and shining then: Texas Instruments -- 99/4000.

"Oh, boy!" breathed Pieter, his brows coming down and together. There was a lot not to like about the whole idea: He could fry the suit computer, crash systems programs, lose invaluable data. He could, conceivably destroy motor-control functions or worse, rendering the entire suit useless.

And, in any case, it would certainly violate the warranty!
No. Under no circumstances would he contemplate such an inane risk.

Copyright 2011, Jonathan Andrew Sheen