The untoward events all occurred within a few seconds. The two technicians had been sitting in their space suits on top of the long, thick arm of the giant mining machine, just below the bottom joint. They had been having a diagnostic discussion by radio with the supervising engineers, who were watching on video from the confines of the control center inside the enclosed dome. When their conversation was finished, the technicians rose to their knees to finish the repairs on the electronics that controlled the enormous claw head resting on the surface of the asteroid twenty feet below them. Suddenly the mining colossus sprang alive. Its long arm jerked into motion, catapulting the two humans away from the equipment.
They flew in the airless, low-gravity environment of the asteroid as if they had been shot from a gun. Tumbling head over heels, their arms flailing, their terrified shouts resounding throughout the control center, the technicians smashed against the side of a second mining machine two hundred yards away. The engineers under the dome shuddered in horror as their colleagues ricocheted upward and then fell slowly, apparently lifeless, near the lip of a large mining pit.
Mr. David Blake, the chief engineer on the asteroid Cicero, was sitting in his office when the accident occurred. Just as he finished composing an electronic letter to FISC (Federation of Independent Space Colonies) engineering headquarters in Centralia, on Mars, complaining once again about the shortage of critical parts on Cicero, one of his assistants burst into the office.
“Blake,” the assistant said, panic in his voice, “something terrible has happened. Miner #7 moved. Samuels and Turner were thrown off the arm. They aren’t responding to our calls.”
Blake quickly followed the assistant down the corridor to the main control center in the engineering complex. The control center was a large room at the top of a cylindrical tower near the edge of the dome that covered the inhabited region of Cicero. Half a dozen technicians and engineers were inside the room, along with ten computer workstations and seven large overhead monitors. On each of the monitors, a live image depicting an activity in process outside the dome was projected. When the two men entered the room, the huge central monitor showed a close-up picture of the two men in space suits lying motionless near the mining pit. In the image background stood one of the gigantic, silver, robotic mining machines, the bold, black letters FISC clearly emblazoned on its side.
Nicholas Cruz, the earnest young man who was in charge of outside operations activities on the current shift, walked over to Blake. “The biometry readings are garbage,” he said. “Their transmitters must have been crushed during the accident.” He paused a moment. “I assume you would like to see the complete video?” he said.
Blake nodded. The large central monitor filled a moment later with a still image of the two men sitting on the arm of Miner #7. The recording that began to play included the last snippets of conversation prior to the sudden movement of the arm, as well as the horrible cries of the technicians during their short flight. Blake winced as he watched his friends carom off the adjacent miner and then fall to the asteroid surface.
“We’ll need an emergency rescue team,” a visibly shaken Blake said as soon as the video was finished.
“Yes, sir,” Nick Cruz said. “We’ve already begun the preparations.” He paused a moment. “Please, sir, I would like to volunteer.”
“All right, Nick,” Blake said. “You lead the team. Take Lucy, Julius, and Hiro. No diagnostics on the miner. Just bring Samuels and Turner inside as fast as you can. Every second counts.”
Nick quickly left the control center. Blake told one of the technicians to reconfigure the screens so that the central monitor would always show the activities of the rescue team. For the next several seconds, he gazed idly at the other screens, his mind deep in thought about the possible repercussions of the accident. Three of the screens showed other, similar mining machines at work in different locations outside the dome on Cicero. The remaining monitors in the control center depicted scenes inside the robotic factories where the raw ore was taken for processing after it was extracted.
There had never been a work fatality outside the dome on Cicero. For a decade eight of the mammoth mining drones, considered to be triumphs of human engineering, had been in nearly constant operation on the small spherical asteroid. The machines ripped into the ground with their enormous claws, tapping the rich lodes of iron and nickel that were very close to the surface. The material was then deposited in the open beds of large, all-terrain robot trucks and carried to four widely separated processing factories, each located about a mile outside the enclosed town.
Inside the vast, translucent dome, which covered twenty square miles in the equatorial region of Cicero and provided an Earthlike atmosphere for the asteroid’s three thousand inhabitants, all the mining activities were carefully monitored from the control center. Regular maintenance on the mining machines and trucks, or on any of the equipment in the unpeopled processing factories, was provided by robot technicians dispatched from the inside.
The entire system was designed so that human activity outside the enclosed dome would be reduced to an absolute minimum. In fact, during the four years immediately prior to Engineer Blake’s decision to recertify each of the mining machines, only three human sorties “outside” had been required to repair or maintain any of the mining system components.
Over the past year, however, as incident after incident had increased the tension between the FISC and its rival space power, the UDSC (United Democratic Space Colonies), efficient management of its mining operations had become a low priority for the Federation. The engineers on Cicero and the other mining asteroids had been ordered to sharply reduce maintenance activities on the existing equipment and key personnel were transferred to the defense effort. As a result, serious failures in the mining system on Cicero had begun to occur more frequently and productivity had dropped off markedly.
To mitigate these problems, Blake had decided in early 2408 that only a thorough, component-by-component recertification of all the mining machines had a chance of significantly reducing the failure rate. For over a month, human technicians had been going “outside” on a daily basis, carrying with them field-testing apparatus as well as all the requisite spares, replacing any and all components that did not meet the original machine specifications. The previous outside sorties had all occurred without incident. More than forty major parts had been replaced. There was reason to believe that the entire complicated and possibly dangerous procedure was going to achieve its desired result. Only two days had been left in the recertification process when the arm on Miner #7 had moved unexpectedly.
Still deep in thought, Blake watched from the control center as the rover carrying Nick Cruz and the rest of the rescue team passed through the airlock and into the vacuum outside the dome. Nick was driving. The rover was bouncing wildly across the barren, rocky terrain as it sped toward its destination about ten miles away.
Inside the Cicero Hospital, Hunter Blake, the twenty-year-old son of Engineer David Blake, was chatting comfortably with a couple whose son was about to undergo a routine tonsillectomy. “This particular robot surgeon,” he told them, in response to a question, “has only performed five tonsillectomies in the past. However,” Hunter said, calling up data on the large monitor on his desk, “as you can see from these statistics, this release version of the surgeon has successfully completed over two hundred similar procedures at hospitals all over the Federation. With no complications worth noting.”
“I would just feel better,” the woman said, “if a human being were doing the operation. I know it’s simple, but Jimmy’s my only son and...”
“Even if you were on Earth,” Hunter interrupted her pleasantly, “it would be very unlikely that your son’s tonsils would be removed by an actual person. The operation is too straightforward to justify the expense of a real surgeon. And the risks are minimal. If the robot surgeon sees anything at all that is not completely standard, it will simply abort the procedure and wait for instructions.”
“Are you a doctor?” the man suddenly asked.
“No,” Hunter said, “I’m a certified paramedic. I recently finished my eighteen-month course here at the hospital.” He smiled. “I’ve applied to one of the Federation medical schools on Mars and am waiting to hear if I’ve been accepted.”
“Hunter,” an electronic voice intoned over the network audio system, “I am now ready to proceed. I have finished all the self-tests required by procedure 226A and everything has checked out positively.”
“Thank you, 4G19,” Hunter replied. As he turned to ask the boy’s parents if they had any more questions, Hunter’s personal pager sounded, its urgent tone indicating a top-priority message. During his few months at the hospital, he had received only one such message before, when a high-ranking Cicero official who had had a heart attack was being rushed to the hospital and the mayor wanted to be certain that all preparations would be complete before his arrival.
The small monitor on Hunter’s pager flashed the sentence “Stop whatever you are doing and report immediately to the central hospital office.”
“Excuse me,” Hunter said to the couple, “but I have just been summoned to an emergency meeting. I apologize for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, unless you wish to sign a waiver and proceed with the operation with no human monitor, we will need to reschedule Jimmy’s tonsillectomy to tomorrow morning.”
The woman shook her head vigorously. “As I said earlier this morning, it’s very important to me that there be somebody in attendance during his operation.”
“All right,” Hunter said, “we’ll reschedule Jimmy for ten o’clock tomorrow.” He headed for the door. “The robot orderlies will escort your son to the dressing room,” Hunter said hurriedly. “You can meet him there.”
The woman started to ask Hunter a question. “I’m sorry,” he said, interrupting her, “I really must leave right now.”
A moment later Hunter was walking rapidly down the hospital corridor. In his haste at one point he took both his feet off the floor and became airborne in the near weightlessness. Struggling to remain upright, Hunter drifted slowly downward for a few seconds. When one of his shoes was again in contact with the floor, he continued, this time at a more even pace.
Within a minute all eight members of the hospital’s human staff had arrived at the central office. “There’s been an accident outside,” the hospital director, a thin, sallow man in his early fifties, told the staff. “An emergency sortie has been dispatched to bring the two injured technicians back as soon as possible. Because their biometry transmitters have failed, we have no explicit knowledge of their condition. It seems unlikely to me, after viewing the video of the accident, that they are still alive. Nevertheless, we must be prepared to do whatever we can.
“I have called Dr. Wallace and Dr. Chen,” the director continued. He started the recording of the video of the accident, which played on the monitor on the wall behind him. “They will be here in twenty minutes. They have asked me to make certain that all reasonable preparations are complete before they arrive.... Kim, make sure that all emergency room equipment is operational. Blake, check our inventory of replacement organs and other biological subsystems, both hybrid and all-engineering. Singh, review the blood types of the two men and check our supplies, in case transfusions will be required....”
While he was listening to the director’s instructions, Hunter studied the short video of the accident, which was playing for the second time on the screen. He watched in horror as the two figures struck the other mining machine, bounced upward, and then seemed to hang in the air before falling to the surface. They couldn’t possibly have survived, Hunter thought. If they didn’t die from their injuries, failure of their space suits would have killed them.
The director had finished his assignments. “Any questions?” he said. “All right, let’s meet back here in fifteen minutes. Please be on time.”
Hunter returned to his work area to perform his task. He quickly verified in detail what he already knew — that the hospital’s inventory of human replacement parts, including all the critical organs, was woefully lacking. Three times in the last year the hospital had received long requisition lists from the FISC defense ministry. All types of body parts — biological, hybrid, and all-engineering — had been their top-priority requests. In spite of the director’s protestations, the mayor of Cicero had ordered the hospital to comply. Even if the technicians are still alive, by some miracle, Hunter thought as he quickly scanned the list of zeros on the inventory list, our transplant options are virtually nonexistent.
The hospital staff members all assembled again in the office at the appointed time. While they waited for the director, they groused about the shortages and their inability to perform their required functions. “I have five robot orderlies out of service now,” said the operations chief, “waiting for parts. And Mars can give me no schedule for when they might arrive.... I have been delivering meals MYSELF for the last two months.”
The director was almost ten minutes late for the meeting. When he arrived, he looked even more wan than usual. “Our crisis is over,” he announced with a heavy sigh. “The two technicians are dead. They are being transported to the crematorium.”
He paused and looked at his staff. “I have decided we’re going to prepare a report for the mayor’s office anyway. I want him to know how ill-equipped we are at present to deal with any similar kind of emergency.” He forced a smile. “Not that it will do any good — I’m afraid the needs of an outpost hospital are not very important when compared with a possible war — but I couldn’t live with myself if I said nothing.”
Excerpted from The Tranquility Wars by Gentry Lee. Copyright © 2000 by Gentry Lee. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.