The foremost question regarding the Entente was its funding. In a world with no clear supreme authority, flexible and byzantine taxation, and rapidly inflating digital credit substituting for hard currency, it would seem impossible to fund and maintain the gigantic patronage bureaucracy and authoritarian police needed to protect it. This was, in fact, true. The digital credits used as money were virtually and literally worthless. To keep itself alive the Entente realized extremely quickly that some kind of hard specie would be needed to secure its power. The rare earth metals such as Gold, Platinum, Palladium, Iridium, Uranium, and Thorium that littered the asteroid belt provided a solution. Getting those metals to Earth was the problem. -Prof. Duncan, The Histories
The chute stank. It stank to high heaven. Which confused John to no end. His mining suit was hermetically and vacuum sealed. It was sealed inside the hab, long before he even descended the chute. Yet every time he descended the shaft to deal with whatever the latest problem was he would encounter some kind of wretchedly foul stench. This only made him hate his job more. Life on the Belt was cold, lonely, dangerous and terrible. John Csonka often wondered how he had been conned into such a life. This was his fourth mission to the belt, each one lasting 180 to 140 Earth days. After half a year of claustrophobic conditions, minimal sanitation, the health deterioration of extended Zero-G, and not to mention the smell, he would return to Earth with a few thousand Kilos of partially refined ore. Why? Why go through all of that? Money, he remembered, money was the reason.
John was from a Montana coal mining town. He belonged to that intermediate generation, a small, isolated generation that came of fighting age during the war and would have been drafted had the US government not collapsed. In fact John got his draft notice just three weeks before the plane crash that killed the President, Speaker of the house, and several high ranking cabinet members. Six weeks later the former Vice President and now President was captured in a raid and congress surrendered. If this hadn’t happened John would have been sent to basic training just three days later. Unlike most people in the US John and his family didn’t need to flee west. They were already somewhat out of the way. His town’s coal mine and the necessary fuel it provided made them somewhat valuable to the sham Provisional US government, the Government of Montana, the emerging Militia Warlords, and even to enemy governments that had toppled the once mighty US. Rather than fight, John spent his late teens learning the trade of mining and providing war material to whoever could provided food, medicine, and security to his local population. This is when John not only learned to life in the pits, but also how to cut deals and recognize opportunity.
After the war he kept at his trade. When the Entente had emerged as the victorious alliance his people simply shifted from selling to whoever would buy to the Entente. Then, step by step, inch by inch, the Entente began phasing out coal. It didn’t matter to them that the shattered infrastructure of North America meant that coal power generation was the only option for 35% of its population. It didn’t matter that hundreds of thousands of survivors and refugees needed steel for medical implements, transportation, and infrastructure. It didn’t matter that that steel could only be refined or recycled with coal. What mattered is that coal was the enemy of the Entente’s elite and so it had to go. Little by little, inch by inch, John watched as his people slid into economic depression. There was an attempt to continue mining and selling coal to some local Militia Warlords and survivalist groups, but they could not fill the demand and those groups were soon driven further underground by the Entente.
So it was that six years after the war John was unemployed and broke. His only marketable skill was in a dead industry. Or was it? Word had gotten around about new techniques and technology developed by Dr. Eisuke Furukawa of Tokyo University. Entente recruiters suddenly appeared in his home town promising huge bounties for valuable ores that only tough, skilled, experienced miners like John could obtain. He just had to go to the asteroid belt to get them.
John’s mind retraced all the steps that had led him here. Each one a forced step of immediate necessity. He had been so focused on surviving the day that he had kept his eyes on each precarious step. So terrified was he of falling off the path that he failed to look up towards the horizon and see the the dead end each forced step was bringing him closer and closer towards. Now he was staring the dead end in the face. The Furukawa drone was misaligned…again. This was his fourth mission with this drone and each time it had a new and unpredictable failure. The Entente had sold him, and many others, on these suicide missions with promises that the new Furukawa drones could detect, mine, and partially refine all manner of valuable ore automatically. All you had to do was set the thing on an asteroid and monitor it from a nearby, temporary habitation. In 90 days you would have enough ore to pay for your trip plus 5% profit. After six such missions one would have Entente Credits equivalent to a lifetime of pay actually mining coal.
Or so he was told.
In reality the drone’s refinement efficiency was just low enough that the purity threshold to receive lucrative bonuses would not be reached. The automated systems had been designed and tested in 1 G not 0.1 G as many of the asteroids were. The light sensors and radar beams used to align drill bits and strut anchors had not been properly shielded from the cosmic rays that bombarded the Asteroid belt at all times but were partially filtered by Earth’s ozone layer. And, unsurprisingly, the Entente did not care. The contract was the contract and they had honored their end. They leased him the drone, they guaranteed safe transport to and from the Belt, and they paid his contract rates in full and on time. Everything else? Well that was his problem.
John felt himself grow warm with anger as he recollected the one-sided deal he had signed. He should have known better. He crouched down next to the drone and watched as the drill bit spun uselessly several centimeters above the surface of the asteroid while the electronic readout told him it had penetrated nearly a meter. Typical. He thought. Utterly typical. He turned the drone off and inspected the machine top to bottom. This time the sensors had failed to detect how brittle the surface rock was in this particular area. The drill had penetrated nearly a meter, then the drilling area cracked and splintered and sent many small rocks floating away leaving a meter deep bowl like depression that the drone just couldn’t recognize. He went through the familiar process. He did manual radar and lidar scans with his suit then reformatted the data tables and ported them into the drone’s back door data dump. Then he turned on the drone and intiated a mock software update to get the drone to detect and assimilate the new data. This time he included sub surface scans as deep as his suit was capable in order to try and avoid coming back again too soon. He then watched the drone go to work for about 20 minutes, just to be sure it was fixed. Then he headed back to the hab.
The airlock pressurized and John removed his helmet, finally relieved of the hideous stench. The inner door to the pop-up habitat opened and he entered still wearing the suit.
“Hey, Zonk. How’s Bobby?” Huia asked in her rural New Zealand accent.
“Still dumber than the rocks he’s drilling.” John replied, “The drill cracked a bowl in the bottom of the chute and the sensors didn’t detect the change in the surface conditions.
“Well, it looks okay now.” She answered, “You did a backdoor sensor update again?”
“Yeah.” John replied as he began taking off his suit and stripping down to his underwear. This was his first expedition with a partner and having an extra set of eyes helped. Huia Groot was a half-Maori, half-Dutch New Zealander who was about eight years his junior. She didn’t have the desperate, hard-bitten back story John did. In fact she seemed to come from some means. John wasn’t sure. She had a great talent for deflecting questions about how she ended up in the belt and John had a great talent for not being that interested in her history. It had been uncomfortable at first having to live in such close quarters with a younger woman. But soon enough the necessity of both maintaining the drone and simply surviving in such a hostile environment cured John of his shyness. “Anything on the bands?” John asked putting on his jumpsuit and slippers and taking a seat next to Huia at the computer station. “Anyone else having trouble today?”
“Plenty.” Huia answered. “The crew on A-S-X-One-Three-seven-B cracked a drill bit, Carl over on the Eight-Eight had his Bobby miss its anchor points. Darn thing nearly floated away. Finally the guys over on Sixty-B aren’t even getting 30% on their auto-refinement.”
“Hell,” John began, “At this rate none of us will break even on this exped.” He slouched backwards in his chair surrender written across his face. “It’s almost as if the Entente doesn’t want us to deliver good ore.”
Huia shrugged, “Maybe.” She replied. John was finding himself more and more entranced by her sing-songy Kiwi twang. He had been partnered with her almost by accident. He was prepared to make this expedition alone when at the last minute the Entente had issued a new order, two people minimum on every mining crew. Huia’s youth and inexperience had made her unappealing to every other mining captain. Because John was picking assistants last, she was more or less the only person left for him to choose. Sure, there were a few others, young men with strong backs and high obedience scores on their personality assessments. But Huia had a serious tech comprehension score. Enough that if she had wanted to get into some kind of Entente sponsored software education program she probably could have. John figured having someone with a bit of programming savvy would be useful so here she was.
And, it turns out, he was right. She had refined his back door update work around so that it only took a few minutes as opposed to half a day. This “hack” along with other efficiencies she had added to the software side of things made it so that John’s expedition was the only one in the Belt on track to be profitable. In recent days he had begun to feel that sense of attraction that comes with close proximity. She wasn’t drop-dead, movie star gorgeous, and the cramped, spartan living conditions provided no opportunity for those cosmetic adornments so common everywhere else, but still she was pretty. There was something in the raw honesty forced on them by how they were living that made her more attractive than any makeup or stylish dress could. Then there was that sing-songy Kiwi twang. Just her voice itself sounded prettier and prettier each time he heard it. So much so that at times he almost didn’t hear what she was saying, he was just listening to her voice.
All of this bothered John. He had come here to get paid, not to fall in love. Also he had no way of knowing whether his feelings were genuine, or just the typical sexual tension that comes from working together. What really killed some of his feelings, though, was the reality of the Entente. Before every mission, even his previous three solo missions, he had to take a ten hour course on the evils of sexual harassment. He also had to sign contracts stipulating harsh punishment for sexual harassment that could not be appealed. Finally, the Entente then demanded that they take a few women with them on their expeditions. They were setting him up for failure. That resentment alone had been enough, at least at first, to strangle any feelings of attraction he had.
“Anything, else?” he asked matter of factly, his mind returning to the present.
“Just one thing.” Huia replied, a certain conspiratorial tone entering her voice, “Just after you left, we got a sub-band encrypted message. At first it looked like background noise, but there was a repeating pattern. The thing was encrypted, but once you filtered the background noise the pattern that came through was the cypher key.”
“This sounds like bad news.” John replied, “We’re three-hundred million clicks from anyone who would care. What’s with all the cloak and Dagger bullshit?”
“It came from Vesta.” Huia answered, “The message is instructions for a band-call this afternoon. They say they have some important stuff to talk about.”
John sat back and rubbed his scraggly chin. Even shaving had become a once-in-a-while luxury rather than a regular chore. “Vesta…” he mused, “I wonder what those cowboys want?”
“So I should reply?” Huia asked, “Let them know we’ll be on?”
John’s face contorted in a strange grimace. Vesta was a strange place. Originally the mission was funded by the Brayds who were looking for a new home upon which to create their new Utopia. So they got a bunch of money together and gave it to a private crew to go find them a place to settle. The people running the crew were some left over unreconstructed capitalist types. They were unhinged John Galt’s who accepted nothing less than absolute anarchy. The Entente had planted its flag on Ceres already. They hadn’t started building anything, or mining anything yet, but they had claimed it all the same. So when these cowboys went looking for a new place to call their own they landed on Vesta, the second biggest rock in the belt. John was very cautious with these types. He was sympathetic to anyone who wanted to stick it to the Entente, but he just didn’t trust or understand them.
“Hmmm.” He mused, “Yeah, I guess. Can’t hurt to hear what they have to say. If it’s their usual crap we can drop off.”
“Will do.” Huia replied opening up the comms software and beginning to replicate the signal to craft a response.
“How long until the meeting?” John asked.
“Uhhh,” Huia said checking the original message, “About four hours from now.”
“How much data does Bobby have before I gotta go scan for him again?”
“About six hours.” She said.
“Alright.” John replied getting up and heading towards the bunks, “I’m going to catch some shut eye. Anything we need to do until then?”
“I dunno.” Huia replied in a sarcastic tone, “You want to fool around?”
“Ha!” John laughed. Wordlessly he retired to his bunk and shut the lights.
As with all multi-comms calls there were way too many people. There were several dozen tiny video screens. Each one blinking in and out and breaking up due to the asteroid belt interference and low power equipment they had been given. John muted his own microphone and turned off his own camera. He was mostly here to listen. Eventually the hosts on Vesta did the same to everyone else.
“Alright.” The giant talking head in the center video tile began, “That’s enough. I’m muting everyone!” He said in frustration and getting their clandestine call off to an awkward start. “Okay. Now, to answer everyone’s question: What’s with all the James Bond nonsense? Why is every Miner Thirty-Niner in the belt on this call? Because we’ve found a way to circumvent the Entente and get you paid.”
John’s eyes went wide and Huia looked at him with astonishment. This was too good to be true. The Man from Vesta continued, “See, we can all help each other. We all have complementary problems. We need a lot of high purity metals to begin constructing some Holtz engines and subterranean habitats. We need steel, iridium, thorium, and titanium. You guys need help getting out from under your Entente contracts. What we’re proposing is this: We got our hands on a Bobby and we’ve discovered an alteration and upgrade to the refinement process that can deliver seventy-percent pure ore.”
“Bullshit!” Came a voice over the call. One of the other 39’ers had unmuted themselves to call out the Vesta cowboys.
“Dammit not now!” Came the reply from Vesta. He hard muted every other voice. Then he composed himself and continued, “Now there’s a catch. We can’t do these upgrades to your Bobbies. They’re tied into the Entente net and any change will be auto-logged and alerts will pop up back on Earth telling them your screwing with their tech.
“What we propose is this: We will bring our upgraded Bobby to you. Whatever you’re mining, we’ll refine it to the highest possible purity. Then we’ll take a certain percentage of the good stuff for what we need. Then we’ll mix the left over good ore with your slag ore to get you your bonuses. Everyone will hit their incentive targets.” There was a pregnant pause on the call, “That was it.” The man said, “Okay, I’ll unmute people one at a time for questions.”
John sat back stroking his chin while others took their time to ask their questions. Most were technical questions. Some were about shares and how much was “a certain amount”. All the answers were vague and uncertain, it was all mostly speculation. During the background chatter Huia turned to John and said, “Zonk, what do you think? This sounds too good to be true! This could be our ticket out of here. One trip with bonuses could clear our debts and get us seed money for our own gig! We could even come back here, but as our own company!”
John scratched his chin for a moment. Then demurely he said, “No we can’t.” He then leaned forward to the computer and sent a message to the host. In a moment the man from Vesta said, “Okay, looks like John Csonka from T-K-four-two-one has something to say. Zonk, what’s your question?”
“Not a question.” he began, “We can’t do this. For two reasons. First: The Entente is our only way off these rocks. We’ve got food, water, and air for the next six months, then we die. And you guys on Vesta don’t have anything online, food synthers, water recyclers, even transport, to get us off these rocks if the Entente finds out we’re double dipping and leaves us to die. Second: They’ll notice when every thirty-niner in the belt comes back with bonus-quality ore. Does anyone think they won’t get suspicious when they have to pay a few dozen bonuses, all on the same exped, when they’ve had, what? One? Two? Crews earn bonuses so far? Nah, they’ll either notice first and leave us here to die, then ship some security force grunts to dump our corpses in the belt and hand all our shit to the next desperate loser. Or they’ll figure it out when we all come back with good ore. Then they’ll arrest us, jail us, or just dump us in one of those horrible charity houses in the cities. Anyone else want to trade the belt for Street level in the Frisco?”
There was silence. The man from Vesta wore a face of growing frustration and growing anger. Anger that was barely in check. After a moment he said flatly, “That’s not how the Entente Works. They have to pay your bonuses. It’s in your contracts.”
“What was in Yon Lutze’s contract?” John asked. He was met with only silence. “Look,” John began, “It’s a good idea, and to be honest I’m tempted. But we have to remember who we’re dealing with here. The Entente doesn’t take prisoners and they don’t suffer fools. Now right now I can hear all you saying, ‘What about Barret Pilgrim’? He’s a special case and those advantages he had we don’t. We’re out here on their whim, and they’d as soon kill us and rob us than disrupt whatever scam they’re running with the crap we’re hauling back.”
Again silence. “Okay then.” John said, “Until we have a way of totally cutting out the Entente and getting food, water, air, and gravity for ourselves we’re screwed.”
“But we can’t build the tech to do all that without your ore!” The man from Vesta replied.
“You’re smart.” John replied, “Figure something out then call me back.” He then terminated the call and sat back in his chair.
“Jesus, Zonk.” Huia exclaimed, “Is that how it really is? You think we’re screwed?”
“Like a ten cent whore on payday.” John replied, “Nothing against those guys on Vesta, but they’re too dreamy. Just because they believe in contracts and fair deals doesn’t mean anyone else does. Especially not the Entente.”
“But–” Huia began, “But it’s wrong! We’re out here in the wops getting buggered by the people who sent us, and you want to keep doing it!”
“No and yes.” John replied, “Yeah, I hate it. Yeah I hate the Entente, but we can’t feasibly break away. Not right now anyway. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come out here to die.”
“Neither did I.” Huia spat back venomously.
“Then why did you come out here?” John asked, “With your scores you could have gotten a real job, maybe even inside the Entente, but you signed up to get ‘buggered in the wops’, same as me. Why?”
“I—I–” She stammered. She had been surprised by John’s question and was trying to collect herself for a proper reply, “I–”
BEEP-BEEP-BEEP came the alarm.
“Oh what now?” John replied leaning in and looking at the comms screen.
Huia quickly clicked through the alarm screens and pulled up the monitoring equipment on Bobby, “Looks like one of the anchors has misaligned. That back door data dump you did this morning is now useless.”
“Dangit, Bobby.” John said. He got up to put on his suit. He was equal parts furious that the drone had failed again, but was also grateful for the interruption. He had a feeling if he and Huia had kept arguing he might have said something he couldn’t take back. Although he betrayed no emotion on his face, internally in his mind he was shocked to find that the thought of estranging Huia was more terrible than even the thought of being abandoned by the Entente and dying on this God-forsaken rock. “Alright, I’m bringing some replacement anchors and a deep sub-surface scanner. I might be a while.” He said collecting his equipment and going into the air lock.
“Right.” Huia said as she dealt with all the necessary computer commands. As the lock sealed she turned in her chair and looked through the viewport in the airlock at John. Then she said with a look of true remorse, “Zonk…John, I—I just–”
“Hey,” John replied, “Don’t worry about it. We can both apologize when I get back.” With that the outer hatch opened and he was once again treading across uncertain ground on a tiny speck of bare rock, surrounded by the infinite lonliness of space.
He had been in the chute with the drone for about two hours. His nostrils, of course, were being assaulted by the mystery stench. It had taken longer than usual to reset the misaligned anchor and he had done double and triple checks of all the other anchors to be sure. On his third pass he finally noticed something wrong with anchor strut 4 and then reset that as well. It was better to do it now than have to come out again later. It also took extra time to purge the manual scans he had uploaded earlier. Forcing the backdoor update was a well practiced and refined hack. Deleting hard-coded data was not. After all of that he then conducted several deep sub-surface scans with the prospector probe he had brought along. Might as well fill up Bobby with as much as the stupid drone could handle. It was difficult, tedious, claustrophobic work. They had only opened up this vein a week ago but the chute was already ten meters deep. However if his latest scans were accurate a vein of nearly pure Thorium was just five more meters down, and slightly to the left. This haul alone could pay for their trip and put him ahead of the Entente. This had been one of the reasons he had demurred from Vesta. He simply didn’t need their help as much as they thought he did.
John had completed his work and set Bobby to its task. Then about ten minutes later, just before he was ready to head in, the drone stopped dead. Every moving part halted, the drill retracted and then the support struts began shaking as the robot tried to pull itself free of its anchors. Then it stopped and was stark still. A bright, flashing led light appeared on the control panel. John leaned in to see the error message.
REMOVE MANUAL ANCHORS. The message read.
What the Hell? John thought. He then fired up the comm system, “Hey, Hughie, I’ve got a weird reading on Bobby.” He waited, nothing. Then he said again, “Hughie, can you hear me?” Being ten meters deep in the chute obscured communication. He however did not want to make the dangerous climb just to come back down. After a moment of waiting came a crackling reply. He could not make out any words and Huia’s sweet Kiwi twang was drowned out by static. John sighed and climbed back up the chute. Once his line of sight for comms was clear he radioed back to the hab, “Hughie, what’s going on.”
“You better get back here, Zonk.” Came the reply, “There’s something you’ve got to see.” John frowned. This could not be good. He then turned and began the long, frustrating walk back to the hab.
Once inside and rid of his helmet and its foul stench he said, “Okay, what’s up?”
“New communique from HQ.” Huia replied, “The Entente has come to a decision.”
“Oh no.” John said discarding the vacuum suit and sitting down at the computer station in his underwear, “Let’s see.” He pulled up the latest message from Earth.
It has come to our attention, The message began, that many of the outer resource collection consignment operators have been performing manual updates on their Furukawa Smart-Probes. Review of the update logs also shows that the data being uploaded to the Furukawa Smart-Probes has not undergone data sanitization procedures and therefore represents a serious threat to the continued optimal operation of leased equipment. This is in direct violation of the contractual covenants originated at the initialization of the contractor-consignment relationship this technology is operating under. It has therefore been decided that all Furukawa Smart Probes will only receive their periodic, scheduled updates and that the update function will be controlled only by official Office of the Pacific Trade Understanding resources. Also during the next update, whether it is initiated manually or automatically, the Furukawa Probes will be put in a fully autonomous state so as to avoid constant disruption due to manual errors. We thank you for your cooperation and understanding.
The message was signed, “Allicen Uzrei, Senior Policy Arbitrator, The Office of the Pacific Trade Understanding” John sat back in his chair a look of doom on his face. He sat quietly for a few minutes letting the sense of hopelessness and lost causes wash over him. After a long, somber silence Huia finally said, “Well?”
“Well what?” John asked.
“Well, what do we do?” She said, nervous uncertainty seeping from her voice.
John sat for another moment. Eventually he said slowly and sadly, “I don’t know. We’ve only been breaking even because of all the manual updates we’ve had to do. Those punks on Earth, they just don’t get it, they don’t care what we have to go through. Hell,” He said, “I think you’re right, I don’t think they give one good god damn about the ore we refine.”
Now Huia looked nervous, “Well…” She began.
John looked at her inquisitively, “Well what?” He asked.
“It might be the data.” Huia said, “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s it.” She then pulled up some files on the computer screen, “Here,” She said pointing at plain, preformatted, perfectly bureaucratized reports, “These are the ops reports we send back every three days. In it are all the things Bobby has done in that time. Not just us, but everyone else has to send these reports. In these reports are all the automated screw ups that the Bobbies have. It also has all the manual work arounds we do.”
“And?” John asked, not understanding where she was going with this.
“Well,” Huia replied, “If I were working on a better automated system, if I wanted to build a drone that could replace not just the Bobbies, but the people, I’d want all the data on how the automated scripts work in the real world as possible. Sure the manual stuff the people do will give me ideas, but if I wanted to completely eliminated the automated mistakes I’d need the automated data. And as much of it as I could get. After a certain point—”
“The human fixes wouldn’t be worth as much as the computerized glitches.” John finished her sentence. Suddenly everything made sense. He slouched in his chair and covered his face in disgust and despair. “My god.” He said, “We’re lab rats. They sent us out here to give live-fire feedback for the better robots they’re going to replace us with.” He felt hot tears well up inside his eyes. He kept his face covered until he could force the crying to stop. Finally, he sat back feeling more defeated than anything else.
Huia was staring at him with a look of both dread and hope. She too felt lost and betrayed and was hoping against hope that John might have an idea. “So?” She asked meekly, “What do we do?”
John stared blankly as he answered, “I dunno right now. It’s been a long day, and I’m beat. You look pretty twitchy too, having sat in front of that screen for ten hours.” He sighed heavily and looked down at his bare belly and worn underwear. “Tell you what,” He said, “We can’t fix anything right now. Let’s get some shut eye. Maybe an idea will come to us tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Huia said, shutting down Bobby remotely and putting everything else on auto-pilot. Then wordlessly and in a haze of grief the two retired to their respective bunks and the Hab went dark.
The following days were stressful and demoralizing. Both John and Huia had their hands full managing the now fully autonomous and constantly malfunctioning Bobby. John was spending nearly six hours a day in the chute just to manage errors, and Huia had to perform several lengthy and tedious full resets each day just to keep the machine on track. All the while the bands were lit up with other Thirty-Niners having even more serious problems. Several had packed it in already and voided their contracts. Now they were just waiting for the Entente to come pick them up. At the same time the cowboys on Vesta were now more interested in saying “I told you so.” than actually helping. Of course the new forced autonomy of the Bobbies made their initial offer unworkable and meaningless anyway.
John simply pondered. His mind had turned from solving the problem and retreated to figuring out what to do next. He would certainly return to Earth with debt, the kind of Entente debt one cannot discharge, and he feared what kind of menial, unskilled job he was going to be relegated to working. If he could even find one that is. The idea of being huddled into the streets of a major metropolis or simply joining the vagabond camps that littered the old highway system terrified him. The thought of coming back out here for another exped to finalize training his robotic replacement terrified him more. Added to this things with Huia had grown distant. Over the course of the tour they had developed a good natured and honest repartee. They had trust and intuition. The last several days they had stopped talking about anything except the most basic, necessary things needed to keep Bobby running. She’ll be alright. He thought, isolated in his suit at the bottom of the chute watching Bobby perform his tasks very poorly. She has that tech qualification she’ll get into some kind of program. Despite this rationalization he still felt as though he had failed her somehow. The idea that once they got back to Earth the two of them would say cold, somber good byes and never see each other again scared him the most. This new crisis had awoken in him some kind of genuine care for her and this he found the most difficult to deal with.
It was here at the bottom of the chute, soaking in a cold bath of despondent thoughts, that inspiration finally came to him. Bobby was on the verge of failing again. The drill had misaligned and was now boring in a direction 90° to the necessary angle. John watched, ticking off the time in his head until failure. Shortly the drone stopped, withdrew its drill, and then began to try and drill again, only to be deflected again. Bobby’s internal sensors had missed a chunk of silicate oxide rock directly in the path of the bit. Over and over the drill deflected off this stubborn obstacle and started boring in the wrong direction. After three consecutive failures, the drone withdrew the drill entirely and shut down.
REPOSITION SMART PROBE. Came the automated instructions on the display screen. REDEPLOY ANCHOR STRUTS, INITIATE SCANS. John sighed heavily and got up to do as he had been told. The Drone was very large, but in the reduced gravity he could spin it about its vertical axis and move it to get a better angle for the internal sensors to detect the problem. As he grabbed the anchor strut nearest the display screen he suddenly had a flash, an inspiration. He studied the display screen and the data module it was attached to. He noticed how this part of Bobby seemed bolted on to the drone. It was almost as if it was a separate machine that had been added later. John stopped what he was doing and ascended the chute to get a clear comms signal to the Hab.
“Huia,” He said as he emerged from the great hole in the asteroid, “Huia I’ve got and idea.”
“What?” She replied confusion cutting through the fatigue in her voice, “An idea for what?”
“Just an Idea.” John replied, “But I need to know something first. First is the data module and display screen detachable from Bobby? Is that part of the drone independent?”
“Well, yeah.” She replied, “I mean that’s half the problem. You have a good machine with good subroutines being ordered around by an absolute shite computer.”
“Good.” John replied, the enthusiasm of invention welling up inside him, “Next, could you use our old logs to create a randomized fake report? Could you program the data module to send fake data back to Earth?”
“I–” Huia began. At first she was so shocked by the request she couldn’t respond. Then she began to see the outline of John’s plan and suddenly she too had caught the virus of invention, “Yeah. I think I can. We have enough of the automated data now it wouldn’t be too hard.”
“Finally,” John asked, “How long does a full reset take. Or how long does it look like it takes?”
“About two hours.” She replied.
“And how long would it take you to fake the logs and back door them into the Data module so that the Entente won’t notice?”
“Uhhh,” She mused doing internal calculations in her head, “A little under two hours, if I really pushed it.”
John smiled in his suit. “Good.” he replied, “Shut Bobby all the way down, as though we’re doing a full reset. Then get going on those logs. I’ll be back inside in about forty-five minutes.” John turned to descend the chute again, then he paused and said, “One more thing, Hughie, call Vesta. Tell them Zonk has a way to solve all our problems.”
John’s ideas proved fruitful. In the coming days not only had he and Huia implemented his idea and provided a proof of concept for other Thirty-Niners to follow, but he had gotten total buy-in from Vesta. As it turns out they were ready to abandon their colony as well. Now everyone in the belt was one for all and all for one. Within a few weeks every remaining thirty-niner had followed in their footsteps and production and refinement of usable ore had skyrocketed. Long before their expeditions had been scheduled to end, the miners had left their cramped, isolated pop-up habs and migrated to Vesta. The surface dome they lived in was temporary, and the sub-surface Holtz engine that would provide gravity was only just beginning construction, but the food synthesizers and water recyclers were online.
One hundred and Eighty Earth Days later the Entente finally returned. All the Furukawa Smart-Probes should have reached full capacity by then and the Entente was returning to collect their good and transport the miners back to Earth. The retrieval teams were shocked at what they found. All the habitats were abandoned and all the Furukawa Smart Probes were missing. At each abandoned hab they found only the data module from the assigned probe. They had been staked into the surface the asteroids, their antenna dutifully broadcasting fake reports all the while the fabricated readings were blinking across the display screen. Befuddled the Entente crews searched about, looking for any sign of the miners and their equipment. When none could be found they radioed back to Earth for instructions and waited the half hour for a reply. The answer was simple, return to Earth, make no attempt to find, rescue, or return any miner. Retrieve the data modules and any other Furukawa Smart Probes they could find. When the retrieval ship packed up and left they took not only the Entente equipment with them, but also the Entente’s hopes. For now, at least, the Asteroid belt was just too far for the Entente to control. Besides policy makers in the Entente had already shifted their position as other opportunities to procure the hard specie and precious metals they needed had presented themselves.
Meanwhile on Vesta John and Huia were sitting at the colony bar, enjoying the most atrocious frontier whiskey, and laughing together, along with all the other thrity-niners, as they watched the retrieval ship wander from rock to rock with no idea what was happening. What had happened was this: During the time that the full reset was supposed to happen, John had disconnected the data module and Huia had forced root access. Then she loaded a data script that would produce fake reports for the Entente that perfectly mimicked the autonomous functioning of the Drone. Freed from Entente supervision, John then got Vesta to share their upgrades for refinement and then added that to his Bobby. Now the new Zonk drones, powered by a superior software upgrade called the “Groot Routine” worked like a dream. In no time flat every Thirty-niner in the belt had large quantities of relatively pure ore. Vesta, using the one small ship they had, then began migrating the miners, the ore, and the drones to Vesta. Now the drones were put to work excavating the interior of Vesta. The colony was powered by several, small, survival Thorium reactors that now had a lifetime of fuel. And as the drones excavated the interior, high-purity titanium-alloy beams were being used to reinforce the asteroid. Once completed Vesta would be stronger than it had been before.
John smiled and sipped his whiskey and exchanged knowing, flirtatious glances with Huia while they watched all this happen. As the retrieval ship began its long, disappointing journey back to Earth Huia turned to him and said, “Well, I guess that’s it, we’re free.”
“Free enough.” John replied, “Though I don’t think we’ll be able to go back to Earth any time soon. No doubt the Entente wants our heads.”
“They can piss off.” Huia laughed, “They won’t be getting our ore any time soon.”
“Actually they might.” John replied, “I just talked to the cowboys yesterday. They said due to a critical, and sudden, shortage of precious metals the Entente is willing to deal. Vesta, to the surprise of the Entente, has a surplus of what they need. Once we get a couple more ships up and running we’ll be making deposits on Luna in exchange for water, food, and a lot of technology. We’ll be self sufficient and fully autonomous within three Earth years.” He smiled.
“Damn,” Huia said, “So we actually are getting paid this expedition, thanks to your idea.”
“Well my idea would have been meaningless if not for those ‘Groot Routines’ that made the Bobbies actually useful.” John replied, “Hell, we’re only working six hour days these days. Everything is going so well I don’t know what to do with myself.”
“Well,” Huia said smiling, “We could fool around.”
John chuckled flirtatiously. Then he finished his drink and set the empty on the table. Then He smiled at Huia and replied, “Girl, I thought you’d never ask.”