On a bad day, I hate everyone. On a good day, I only hate myself. Today was somewhere in between.
We get sold an idea when we’re young. Call it a group indoctrination or maybe propaganda to keep the masses quiet. I’m sure you’ve heard it—perhaps you even believe it. The idea that things get better. With time, even the biggest tragedies and screw-ups are replaced with happier, more positive experiences and memories.
That’s bullshit. Nothing but a contemptuous lie that seeps inside you like venom, and the worst of it is that you want it to be true. We all want it to be true because if it isn’t, then what the hell’s the point of existing? For a while I’d almost believed it too. Things had been looking up. I had a wife, possibly a family. Then it all fell apart in an instant, leaving an emptiness that gnawed at me from the inside—a blanket of shadow that hated the light.
“Help! Help! The sky is falling!”
Hardrock Harry was stuck again. He’d dug a tunnel fifty meters deeper into the asteroid than he’d previously managed, which made it his best run so far. Despite that, it was well short of the performance levels needed to pass the field trials. As usual, he’d failed while executing a turn, the trickiest part of the operation but one his design specs said he should have been capable of.
“Sorry, Joe.” Harry’s soft voice had a doleful quality that wasn’t part of his general programming. “My progress rate is 0.00 meters per second, my cutters are bound up, and I’ve switched off to prevent overheating.”
I pulled out my flask, poured a cup of strong whiskey-laced coffee, and swallowed a mouthful. “Don’t worry, Harry. You’ll get it next time. Can you back out?”
There was a short delay, which gave the impression that Harry was thinking about it, but in reality, that was simply the time it took for my message to reach him. Harry was operating inside the KG-643 asteroid test site, while I was in an office in the bustling new-tech area of Carney, Baltimore.
I was running the gang through a testing program that was supposed to prove the value of autonomous mining and construction robots, designed to construct a habitat from suitable asteroids without supervision. The trials weren’t going well.
“Harry’s in the way again, the dumbass. I can’t set the RokFrac unless he moves.”
The new voice was sharper with a heavy New York accent. Blasting Bob was another member of the team. He was designed to follow behind Harry, planting rock-splitting charges in the holes drilled by Harry. The debris would then be collected by several Muckout Mikes, units that shipped the rocks to the processing station where they would get crushed and treated to form the basis of an airtight astrocrete used to line the tunnels.
The drilling and charges had to be precise. If not, the explosions could trap the robots, possibly damaging them but certainly ending their ability to work on their own. The project had ambitious goals, which so far seemed about as remote as Proxima Centauri, where the robots were destined to operate under field trials in a few months.
I checked Harry’s remote cameras. Bob floated a few meters behind him, his arms twitching as if impatient to get on with his work.
“Keep your powder dry, Bobby,” I muttered. “You’ll get your chance to blow something up soon.”
Harry, Bob, and the Mikes formed a new system designed to give us an advantage in developing off-world bases. Once the details of the Jump drive were released, there’d been a push to expand, and not only in the United States and Provinces. The PanAsian Confederation, the Atolls, and several of the Corporate States had launched ships to the closer stars. It was like the ancient land rushes after the Europeans invaded North America, but on an interstellar scale.
We knew planetary systems were common, but habitable worlds didn’t appear to be. And so far, all habitats had been built using Earth, or lunar, resources, an unsustainable proposition even in the short-term.
We needed a way of creating habitats on site from local materials. Sure, we could drill out asteroids, which we’d found in every star system we’d visited, but that wasn’t a long-term solution either. Those annoying creatures known as humans were biologically adapted to work in a one-g environment and suffered from all sorts of problems when operating in microgravity.
Special drugs and tailored exercise routines could only do so much. Although I agreed that we desperately needed to expand outside the solar system, this wasn’t the answer, and knowing it was the wrong approach made me hate the project.
“Ballen?” I recognized the clipped tones of Giles Palmer without looking around. “What’s going on? Those damned ‘bots have stopped again.”
Palmer was well-qualified as a project manager, bringing the perfect mix of ignorance and over-optimistic self-belief that guaranteed failure. He had no ZeeGee experience and limited knowledge of remote operations, but that didn’t stop him from telling everyone else how to do their jobs.
“Harry ran into some tough deposits as he was turning.” I took another swig of coffee. Luckily for Palmer, the alcohol was having a soothing effect. “The cutter units overheated, and he shut down to protect them.”
“The H4-RR1 unit is supposed to do what we tell it, not decide what it wants to do. Cutters can be replaced easily enough.”
Palmer was the only person involved in the project who insisted on using the bots’ official designations. He was also the only one apparently unable to comprehend that a cutting bit might be disposable while in Earth’s orbit, but when the bots were several light-years from the nearest replacement, it could mean complete project failure.
“The units are programmed to be independent. They’re designed to protect themselves and avoid damage.” I’d explained this so many times I was considering setting up a special “Palmer” button to trigger one of a selection of canned messages.
He frowned, the florid skin on his forehead wrinkling above his bushy unibrow. “We need an external code review.”
I ignored the dig. My code was good, and he knew it.
“The units worked perfectly during simulations,” he continued.
“They always do.” I swallowed more of the spiked coffee. “If you’ll let me get back to work, I’ll clear this up and diagnose the problem.”
He gave a couple of exaggerated sniffs. “Have you been drinking?”
“Mother Shaughnessy’s patent health elixir.” I coughed theatrically then drained the rest of the cup. “Got a bit of a chill. Wouldn’t want to be the cause of any project delays.”
“We can’t have any delays. The schedule is fixed, you know that.”
“Exactly.” I screwed the cap back on my flask. “So why don’t you run along and cook up some more of those imaginary resources you’re so fond of?”
“You have a bad attitude, Ballen.”
I didn’t need his supercilious tone. Not today. “It’s a talent that’s taken years to develop. I’m glad it’s not going to waste.”
“You are intolerable. Impossible to work with. I’ll have to report this to the project board. I’m sure they’ll be happy to take the appropriate steps when they hear of your continuous obstructionism.”
“Joe… I think we’ve got a problem.”
I turned to the console to find Logan staring at me from the com screen. He was in a Hopper out at the ore-processing station a few hundred kilometers from the asteroid, clearing a blockage.
A shrill warble sounded, and I checked the readouts. It took a few seconds to make sense of the displays. This was nothing to do with Harry or Bob. After the tunneling was done, Mudslapper Moses was programmed to follow behind to spray seamless astrocrete and finish off with a quick-dry polymer coating. This was designed to make the tunnel airtight and waterproof, while another unit—Wiring Willie—followed behind Moses installing standard power cabling, water lines, and life-support ducting.
Willie’s sensors struggled in the cloud of polymer spray, so he was supposed to stay well back, but the logjam meant he’d caught up with Moses, with disastrous results. Moses’ spray arms were interlocked with Willie’s wiring and tubing spools, while Willie’s barrel-like body had a gray splash of the quick-dry polymer across the middle.
“Get off me. Geez. Is this a square dance?” Willie growled through the speakers. “I don’t need this kind of disrespect.”
“What have you done, Ballen?” Palmer leaned over my shoulder to study the displays. He couldn’t understand them, but that didn’t stop him from trying. “You’ve screwed up again, haven’t you?”
“I’ve detected an explosion risk in the area, Joe. I’m scared,” Harry yelped. “I’m sorry. I’m going to have to do a reset.”
I thumbed the comms button knowing it was too late. “Harry, don’t—” The displays showing Harry’s readouts turned dark as he switched himself off. It would be three minutes before he finished rebooting.
“Some schmucks are blocking my path. I’m trapped. I’m trapped,” Bob called out belatedly.
I should have put them on standby at the first sign of trouble and would have if Palmer hadn’t stuck his nose in. “Take it easy, Bob.” I hit the override.
“This is all your fault, Ballen.” Palmer stabbed his finger at the console and then at me. “If I have anything to do with it, you’re off this job.”
“I’m quaking in my boots.” I looked back at the readouts. “You don’t have to work so hard at being an asshole, Palmer. You’ve got it down pat.”
He hesitated then thought better of it and left.
I directed Moses to edge backward, and he extricated himself with a minimal amount of wrenching. The robots were built to take a pounding, so the damage was messy but largely superficial. Bob was easier to deal with, and I triggered his reset, giving time for Harry to finish rebooting.
“Sorry, Joe,” Logan mumbled. “I should have put them on suspend right away. I thought I could clear the blockage before they got into trouble.”
I poured more coffee and toasted him via the screen. “Another wonderful day in the blessed life of Joe Ballen.”
“None of it was your fault.” Logan didn’t comment on my drink—he knew better. “Proper AI development costs millions, and even then it’s flaky. They’ve nickel-and-dimed this project from the start.”
“Joe, I think the heat sinks aren’t working right on my left-side cutting arms.” Harry was back from robot zombie land.
I rewound the diagnostic trace to the point he’d run into trouble. There’d been a rise in temperature, but it was within acceptable tolerances. Harry was the front man in the whole system, so his programming gave bigger priority to avoiding damage, but it made him look like a whining hypochondriac. I needed to dampen the hysteresis curves to make him a little less risk-averse, but that would mean going deep into his core programming—something I wasn’t supposed to do. The proper procedure was to request a software specialist to do the work, but that would take two weeks to process, followed by another four of familiarization before the code would even get touched. Software people didn’t understand the concept of either urgency or deadlines.
“Okay, take a break, guys.” I swallowed the final dregs of my coffee. “I need to have a talk with Harry.”
“You’ve got that look in your eyes.” Logan stared at me suspiciously. “What are you planning?”
It was close to check-out time for me, and I didn’t want to stay late, especially today. I didn’t owe the project that. The trouble was my stupid professional pride got in the way of dropping everything. I switched my console to connect to Harry’s service interface and logged into a back door I wasn’t supposed to know about. “I’m making sure I log enough project time. Wouldn’t want to let the side down.”
“And I suppose I get to cover for you again?” Logan shook his head. “I’ll be down in three hours. How about coming over for dinner? Aurore would love to see you again.”
Aurore Vergari was Logan’s wife. She was a technician who’d worked with him on the secret Shokasta project, and they’d enjoyed each other’s company so much, they’d continued the relationship after returning to Earth. I knew Logan’s family wasn’t one hundred percent in favor of it, as she wasn’t from the Nations, so they shared a small place in the packed suburb of Woodlawn and kept things low-key. Eventually, he’d bring them around. Logan was that type of person, quietly determined, and Aurore was so sweet, it was impossible for anyone to dislike her.
I’d have been happy to meet with them usually, but seeing them together only reminded me how alone I was. Something else I didn’t need today.
As I worked on Harry’s programming, I thought more about the job. Certainly we could tunnel out an asteroid, and if this project worked, we’d be able to do that faster and more predictably. But it wouldn’t solve the world’s problems. We were like Neanderthals dreaming of having a bigger cave when what we needed was a high-rise.
Even though the Atolls were no longer blocking Earth’s development in space, they still had the upper hand in terms of expansion. With their super-secret crystalline growth technology, they were able to seed a new Atoll and create a habitat capable of holding hundreds of people in a matter of weeks—and thousands within months.
We were able to do pretty fast constructions on asteroids and assemble stations from expandable units, but they were only suitable for researchers and the military. To avoid physiological problems in ZeeGee, ordinary people needed something big, and Earth was too inexperienced in that type of work.
The PAC had a better idea with their Taikong Gaogu project. They’d developed a massive 3-D printer that would create a giant drum of astrocrete reinforced with nano-fiber. The drums would have a radius of one kilometer with basic habitation levels printed in place. Theoretically, they could be any length, but the immediate plan was to produce standard two-kilometer-long sections. These would be docked together to produce bigger living areas as needed.
It was ambitious but likely the closest we’d get to the self-assembly process the Atolls used, unless they released their secret—and there was more chance of the Baltimore Bulls winning the GlydeBall playoffs. Each finished drum would have twenty levels at one-g and provide about one-hundred and eighty square kilometers total habitable space. The PAC’s public plans called for each drum to sustain a population of three-quarters of a million people and, most importantly, they had the political will to achieve this.
I’d devoured every write-up I could find on the project. If the Remote units were able to keep up a steady diet of raw materials—efficiently mined from asteroids or comets—the basic construction could be completed and ready to pressurize in as little as six weeks. With the population pressure caused by the equatorial Zone of Death, the PAC was desperate. The “Big Drums” looked like a good solution and more practical than the rather pathetic asteroid tunneling I was working on for the USP.
I’d have offered myself for sale on the VoyPorn network for a chance to work on their project, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near it. Like everyone else, the PAC was looking to get their own head start on colonization and, in their eyes, I’d be nothing but a foreign spy.
Besides, I’d probably struggle to make a buck.
When I finally left the tomb-like office building, it was past nine. I was heading back to my rat hole of an apartment and shuffled onto the MagTrans with a late stream of commuters. I didn’t have an aeromobile and couldn’t afford to use a cab on the miserly salary the Off-World Development Project paid—especially as I was still picking up my share of the bills from Dollie’s cab company. She didn’t want me to, but if I hadn’t, the whole thing would have sunk without a trace. Business had nose-dived once the off-world projects started up. The last update I’d seen showed she was down to four drivers, and that wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent. Dollie had offered to buy back my share in one of her friendlier moments, but I knew she didn’t have the money.
The MagTrans was crowded despite the hour, but I managed to find a seat. As always, the compartment smelled of old sweat and tired people, mixed with a metallic tang of ozone drifting up from the maglev inductors. While the technology was clean, people weren’t.
I thought about hopping off one stop early and making my way to the Evil Banker, an L3 bar on the Eastern Parkway that specialized in loud music, cheap booze, and not much in the way of conversation. But instead I hit the automated twenty-four-hour liquor store and picked up a liter of Strelka, a cheap one hundred and seventy proof rotgut that I’d become addicted to. It was supposedly imported from Russia, though I found it hard to believe someone would pay to ship industrial degreaser all that way.
I slapped my key over the lock, and the door to my apartment slid open. Howard’s Lofts was an exclusive three-by-seven-meter slumber pad on fortieth, frequented by traveling business people, hookers, junkies, drop-outs on universal wag, and people like me who didn’t much care where they slept. At least I wasn’t selling my body parts… yet.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” I called out to the refrigerator that was bolted to the countertop. My words bounced around the cold, gray concrete walls. The tight confines of the apartment didn’t worry me—no one who’s worked or lived in space could ever be claustrophobic. What bothered me was how big it was in its emptiness. I slumped in the meager dining area—in reality a half-meter plastic table attached to a pair of equally plastic chairs—also bolted down—and littered with empty bottles from previous nights. I needed to clean house but switched on the 3V instead.
The seal on the vodka broke with a crack, and I threw the first shot down in a single gulp. It didn’t taste of anything, but after the second swallow, who cared? Drinking alone was always considered unhealthy, but what’s the alternative when you’re on your own and don’t want new friends? Loneliness can’t be cured by other people—it’s on the inside, and no one can make you feel less lonely, except yourself—something that was beyond me.
So, yeah, things get better? It was a lie long before we poisoned the environment that gave us life. It died out long before the petty bickering and onslaught of imagined slights tore nations apart, pitting generation against generation, old against young, one race against another and, always, rich against poor, strong against weak. The have’s against the have-nots. Perhaps things do get better for some people, but I’ve never met one.
Dollie had left me one hundred and sixty-three days and fourteen hours ago. Not that I was counting. Today was also her birthday, though I never knew how she figured that out—her early background was as murky as mine. I poured another shot and threw it down my throat to join the first. “Happy birthday, Dollie.”
Technically, I suppose you could say I left her. In the sense that we’d been sharing an apartment at the time, and after six months of bitter recriminations, arguments, sniping, and more arguments, I’d left and checked myself into this dump. Dollie blamed me for what happened to our unborn child, even though the Geneium doctors said they couldn’t have saved the baby. She also blamed me for letting them save her.
And the worst of it was, I agreed with her. I blamed myself too.