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Fiction – “Man-Driven Steel” by Ryan Kinkor

Jaspen understood that the difference between an amateur and a professional was the point upon which you began to panic when the job went south. Today, he was about to find out how professional he really was, because unless the pendulum swung his way in five minutes he would be explosively decompressing.

His heritage was one of the cold vacuum, living under the crust of the Moon for most of his twenty-five years and gliding through life along with the other five thousand residents of Hard Knox. Working in the void was nothing to him – he’d flirted with sudden death most of his life. The boxy and cramped ore collector tug ship that he currently inhabited, and which might end up being his coffin not too long from now, had carried him through five dozen asteroid mining excavations and three near miss disasters.

This time, the near miss had turned into a direct hit. The four-by-four meter tug was now wedged under three boulders over a kilometer down Asteroid TM223’s excavation hole, several tons of unusable minerals pressing him into the bottom. The tug had enough integrity to hold together, but the collision damage had ruptured the hull somewhere and air pressure was fading fast. The tug’s exterior grappling arms were pinned down, so repairs were impossible while he was crammed in his lethal nook.

Asteroid TM223 was total vacuum and generated one-one hundredth of Earth’s gravity, which barely held anything to its surface but still caused debris to fall toward the asteroid’s center. The rate of descent was laughably slow, but six tons of mass was still six tons of mass. Jaspen had to guess that some of the rock on the lip of the excavation had come loose and had fallen down the hole while he was occupied with density scanning the asteroid. This being outer space, you couldn’t hear six tons of debris floating toward you. If they’d been traveling any faster, they would have smashed him into the rock face as opposed to merely pinning him.

J.H. was probably still sending the previous load of ore out to the ferry ship by means of the drones. Jaspen had been told not to proceed until J.H. got back due to the whole buddy system and everything. J.H. wasn’t going to be happy to find his partner explosively decompressed.

“C’mon, J.H., I’m at three minutes,” Jaspen pleaded into his communicator. The only response was static and a few jumbled words in the tone of his own voice. The minerals in the boulders were reflecting his beam transmissions, though hopefully not sufficiently to block everything.

“J.H., read me!” He could feel his already ghostly-pale skin going even paler, a mean feat considering the overall whiteness of the Mooner population. It was hard to tan when sun worshiping was a terminal act and UV lights were your only safe source of sunlight.

“Please, J.H., I promise I’ll never, ever do anything stupid again,” he pleased once more. “Confirm my communication, over!”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” came the gravely response, a normally disconcerting voice that made Jaspen’s sigh with absolute relief. Seconds later, a grinding sound echoed through the tug as rock scraped against steel, then faded as the rock lifted away. On the viewing camera, Jaspen watched as one boulder after another was grappled, yanked away, and shoved down the tunnel to fly out into the void.

Like the Elephant Man, warthogs, and tarantulas, J.H. was something that could freak you out at first sight no matter how tolerant you thought you were. A Wesker-class utility cyborg, he towered over most people at eight feet. His torso was a bulky mass of compartments that held dozens of mining tools, from drills to plasma cutters. It was like having a steel cupboard for a chest, and the four lanky utility arms attached to his sides didn’t help his image at all. His back was composed of a complex thruster system for Zero-G work and his legs were covered in spiky protrusions for fastening himself to various surfaces. Most of his body was reflective and shiny like polished silver, which helped him stand out in the gaping, endless night of the void.

He had no head, at least no physical one. The greenish glow above his torso was solidifying into a holographic face, supposedly the face of the man J.H. once was. Hairless, blemish-free, and lacking certain facial tinges that conveyed more complex emotion, he still managed to come across suitably annoyed. The voice on the radio was a direct line, but J.H. was going to the effort of synching his holo-face to his words for effect.

“I said ten minutes, kid,” J.H. scolded. “Ten whole goddamn minutes. And what did you do? You decided that ten minutes is just too damn long. You decided that rocks don’t have a mind of their own, that they can’t sneak up on you. Kid, when I tell you that the rocks are here to kill you, you better goddamn believe me!”

“Agreed,” said Jaspen. “Do you mind plugging my ship up while you rant?”

“What, and let you float away with no lesson learned?” J.H. pivoted himself with a couple small bursts of thrust and scanned the tug’s hull with a chest-based laser. “Ah, damn, you’ve got a serious crack here. It’s right through your servo connections. Guess you can’t do this one yourself.”

His left lower arm extracted a plasma cutter and began to weld shut the exterior crack in the tug. Jaspen watched the oxygen gauge’s rapid decline slow and then stabilize at 15% capacity. Air pressure was constant again. Near Miss Number Four, done and done.

“We’re heading back to the ferry,” declared J.H. as he shut down his cutter and began floating back down the tunnel. “Your thrusters are intact, but I don’t trust anything else. We’ll have to dry dock your ass until the tug is 100% again. Congrats, kid, you’re costing us a day’s work. It’s all coming out of your share, by the way.”

Also like the Elephant Man, you eventually become glad to have J.H. at your side – assuming you stayed on his good side.

*

The cubical dry dock of the ferry ship occupied a Zero-G section, since trying to dock utility craft to the rotating crew section was an unnecessarily difficult task. The tradeoff was that everything had to be bolted down or snapped in or tied off, with every minute scrap of debris transforming into an occupational hazard. This was the haven for the drones, the meter-wide spherical robots with a dozen servo arms, an omni-directional thruster system, and an obsessive respect for cleanliness. Humans avoided the dry dock unless attention to detail was required.

Jaspen required that attention to detail, not trusting the repair drones on adhering to his exact specifications, and he floated in the shielded “safety corner” while using a vid-pad to input last-minute orders to individual drones. The tug was moored to five different clamping arms while seven drones attended to various parts of his ship, but his primary concern was the drone tasked to the wiring. He had done a couple of unregulated modifications to his servo system in order to get more energy to his plasma cutters and the drones would “fix” his modifications if he wasn’t keeping an eye on things.

“When are you going to ditch that rust bucket?” said J.H. floating at his side, all four of his arms behind his holographic head and his legs stretching out in midair like he was resting on an invisible recliner. It was the closest thing to kicking back J.H. could manage – his combined mass would collapse a recliner and the floor below it.

“When you spring for a holo upgrade, I’ll spring for a new tug,” Jaspen replied.

“What’s wrong with my holo?”

“Green is what’s wrong. They have better compilers now, you know.”

“Looked into them already.” J.H. attempted to shrug with two of his arms, but since his shoulders didn’t move the gesture came off wonky. “None of them can get my old face just right. Somethin’ about the eyebrows…”

“Well, then, I guess we’re both stuck.”

“That crate’s going to kill you someday.” J.H.’s artificial voice was fairly flat most of the time, but Jaspen had learned to tell when J.H. was being serious rather than just his usual gruff self. “If you had had sensor alarms on your rear and a third servo, like the safety regs require on new tug models, you could have gotten yourself out of today’s scrape.”

“Probably, but then you wouldn’t be able to save my butt anymore, and what would you do then?”

“I’d work on my golf game,” joked J.H. “But really, kid, you need to think long-term. The playing field changes every decade or so now. You have to know when to hold onto your cherished things and when it’s time to adapt.”

“Said the guy with the twenty-year-old holo compiler.”

J.H.’s laugh was gurgle-laced and broken, more symptomatic of a bad wire than a design flaw. Like everything else broken in J.H.’s metal frame, J.H. called it character.

A musical tune on Jaspen’s vid-pad rang out and signaled an incoming transmission. Candlebrook, another fellow engineer, was calling. Jaspen allowed the call and was quickly staring at his friend’s holographic Arabian face, beaming with unbridled joy.

“It’s started, Jaspen,” declared Candlebrook. “Switch to my tug’s vid frequency and I’ll patch you in.”

“Goody,” Jaspen got in before ending the call and accepting Candlebrook’s newest transmission. “Looks like we have something to watch besides archives of The Simpsons tonight. Interested, J.H.?”

J.H. did another unconvincing shrug. “Yeah, sure. Put it on wide-field broadcast.”

The vid-pad began projecting a light field into the air ahead of Jaspen, an asteroid-strewn scene collating before them. Both men recognized the main asteroid in the transmission – they knew Asteroid TM223 inside and out after having mined it for three weeks. Candlebrook’s tug was transmitting a live feed from close up, focusing on an unbroken section of the rock. There was some kind of ship approaching the lumpy surface, something unidentifiable at first until Candlebrook zoomed in and locked on the image.

It was like a spider gliding through the void; that was Jaspen’s first impression. They had designed it with eight leg-like servo arms, spreading them out all along the long, ovoid torso. The forward section had a squat cubic sensor cluster in-between two massive tubular emitters that Jaspen recognized as industrial-strength plasma cutters. With no drama or sound, it collided with the surface, four of its legs taking the impact nimbly and immediately aligning the front of the ship perpendicular to the surface.

After the A.O.M fastened itself to the asteroid via its servos, a burst of orangey luminance erupted from the plasma cutters as they began to sear the rock face into molten slag. Two other servos dug their scoop-like extremities into the molten and malleable ore, digging it loose from the surface and moving it to a special steel-wired net that had ejected from the rear of the craft shortly after landing. A flock of drones swarmed around the net, waiting for the ore to cool sufficiently before grabbing it for transport.

“Magma-steel,” commented Jaspen with an impressed whistle. “I wondered if we’d see it in action. That metal was forged to withstand lava.”

“Where did that thing come from?” said J.H., substantially less happy than Jaspen. “I didn’t hear about any new teams coming to the ferry.”

“It’s not a team. You know, you could actually read the memos from the engineering union that I send you…”

“Kid, seriously, what is that thing?” Even with the tonal discord, J.H.’s insistence was unmistakable.

“It’s a prototype A.O.M.: Autonomous Orbital Miner. The company bid on the rights to test it out and Candlebrook got the right to put it through its paces. Expensive as a small moon, what with an Ingrid Fusion Reactor onboard and those plasma cutters, but look at that thing go. It would take us an hour to get that much ore out of our mining shaft.”

“Autonomous?”

“Yeah, it has a Mark III Artificial Intelligence. No drone intellect at work here. It’s pretty amazing, you know. It’s nowhere near as smart as you or me, but you don’t need to be a genius to be… J.H.?”

In the few seconds that it took Jaspen to register that J.H. was no longer floating next to him, the cyborg had silently maneuvered down to an egress station and was already down the corridor, heading for the ferry’s habitation ring.

*

It wasn’t hard for Jaspen to track down J.H., considering that there were only a handful of places on the ferry that Wesker-Class cyborgs could travel, and even fewer places that they’d want to travel. While the more human-like cyborgs could live just like normal humans, the tank-like Weskers had to make due with hangers and supply nooks.

While Jaspen never dared say it aloud, he occasionally felt sorry for J.H. when it came to the cyborg’s life outside of mining. All that soulless metal, all those powerful limbs; they stood as barriers between him and the rest of humanity. When people weren’t pitying cyborgs, they were fearing them. All cyborgs, from your basic cybernetic models to your mining and military monsters, used inhibitor circuitry to prevent their human minds from pushing their mechanical parts past safety limits. It also limited their strength in domestic environments. Thanks to inhibitors, it was actually harder for a cyborg to hurt someone than it was for a normal person to hurt a cyborg. But most people didn’t pay attention to such facts. With J.H., they only saw an emotionally questionable machine that could snap a human spine with a casual backhand.

Jaspen knocked on J.H.’s private door, expecting to be rebuffed but surprised to find the door sliding back after only one hail. J.H.’s room was only slightly bigger than he was, a cable connection and power outlet its only adornments. He was plugged into both outlets, standing ramrod straight and lacking his holo face. The outlets gave him access to the ship’s data web and various forms of virtual reality entertainment that only a disembodied brain could enjoy.

If J.H.’s wordless departure had tipped off Jaspen that something was wrong, then the deactivated holo compiler clinched it. J.H. kept his holo face on all the time. It was one of the few things that reminded everyone that there was a human mind buried within all that steel. J.H. wore his face like a badge of honor.

“You worried me, big guy,” said Jaspen as he squeezed into the tiny room, allowing the door to close and the overhead light to click on. Despite the super-cramped confinements, Jaspen wanted to keep things private. “Usually you let me look at you first when you’re suffering a malfunction.”

“Eight.”

A one-word answer, which wasn’t J.H.’s style. “Eight what?” Jaspen asked.

“Eight Weskers. That’s how expensive the A.O.M. is – eight of us to one of them. You think it’ll do the job of eight Weskers?”

“You’ve been reading the memos. I guess I’m glad you’re taking an interest in my work, but you could’ve…”

“It doesn’t matter, I suppose,” continued J.H. “They’ll claim it does anyway.”

Jaspen was starting to realize what was going on. He was surprised that he hadn’t caught on sooner, but then J.H. was harder to read than most people. “J.H., it’s a prototype. It might be years before it becomes marketable, or it might not even make it to market.”

“Then something else like it will come along, something else that’s unmanned. I may not read the memos, but I do know a thing or two about A.I. Even the best computers are still bad at making snap decisions, still poor at improvisation. If that thing had been your partner today, it probably would have let you die.”

“Yeah, maybe, but then again it doesn’t need a tug at its back. Maybe that’s a good thing. You know the statistics – being in the army is less dangerous than this job.”

“For kids like you, yes. But Weskers are forged for this type of work.”

“You weren’t forged. You were… no, you are a person, just like me.”

Silence filled the small chamber for many moments, Jaspen beginning to fear that his friend was on his way toward a mental breakdown or something equally psychologically damaging. Machines were things he could work on – the human psyche was out of his element.

The droning warble that eventually erupted from J.H. sounded like digitized gargling to most people, but it was what passed as laughter for the cyborg’s failing voice box. It didn’t reassure Jaspen in the slightest.

“Just like you, kid,” J.H. said. “Nice sentiment, but I’ve always told you to keep things honest. I haven’t been just like you since I lost the lower half of my body, both arms, and a good chunk of my skull in that ferry ship explosion two decades ago. I haven’t been just like you since they dumped my brain into this exo-frame and had me sign a ten-year contract to work off the medical costs. No, I’m not just like you, but I’m still kicking. Instead of guys like me ending up with piss-poor cybernetics and walking around like half-metal poster boys for accident prevention, we’re out here in the void, doing the work we were built to do. But that’s not going to last, is it?”

“J.H…”

“Don’t, kid. Just go.”

Jaspen bit his lip and extricated himself from J.H.’s closet, leaving the motionless giant to his depression. There really was no counter-argument to J.H.’s conclusions. If the A.O.M. proved successful, it would undoubtedly doom the conventional cyborg-tug teams. Jaspen figured he could adapt and acquire new training, but what about someone like J.H.? A human mind in a metal frame was still a paid employee and a lawsuit liability, whereas A.I.s had no such distinctions. They were cheaper in the long run, and the company always loved cheaper.

Jaspen decided to visit the ferry’s lounge. Getting drunk sounded like the least painful course of action tonight.

*

The laws of timing never seemed to favor Jaspen, and for some reason those laws particularly liked to toy with him while he took showers. The grating ring of his cabin communicator reverberated through his shower stall and into his aching head, the recycled water sluicing down his body providing little comfort against the hangover he’d acquired overnight. Dripping and swearing, he darted from the steaming stall and ran for his vid-pad in his bedroom. Calls that came in at 0630 hours were usually urgent, either in a “help us, something important is broken” fashion or “we found a big vein of platinum, help us mine it and get rich” fashion.

Today, it was neither. Saturating the carpet under his feet, his head racing and throbbing alternatively, he listened to the automated message inform him of the amazing event about to take place at 0700 hours. All shifts would be suspended twenty-four hours; all ferry teams were invited to spectate. Bets would be allowed if they were under a hundred credits.

Jaspen didn’t care about time off, bets, or spectators. He didn’t care about breakfast or even his pounding head as he dressed and sped out of his apartment. He didn’t care about the crude and tacky lime-green paintjob applied to his tug by the repair drones as he commandeered his ship and sped from the repair bay towards Asteroid V553, where the event was being held.

He did care that he couldn’t get J.H. on the radio. The cyborg was purposefully ignoring him, as it was illegal to exit into the void without a working communication system.

Asteroid V553 was much smaller than their previous dig, almost a perfect sphere save for a pair of tumorous hills on one side. Jaspen could make out nine tugs floating near the sun side of the rock, drones and other Wesker-class cyborgs clustered nearby. He could also see the A.O.M. secured to the asteroid and a silver humanoid figure many meters away to its right, also secured to the rock. Using a drone for a remote feed, he watched as J.H. began orienting himself to begin an excavation, all four hands armed with plasma torches, drills, and hammer-like jack pounders.

With J.H. silent, Jaspen hailed the event’s organizer instead. Candlebrook’s excited face filled the comm screen as Jaspen asked what the hell was going on. Candlebrook seemed astonished by the question, clearly expecting Jaspen to be in the know. J.H. was Jaspen’s partner, after all.

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Candlebrook explained. “One big race to the other side of this useless asteroid. 500 meters of rock in their way. The old versus the new. If he wins the race, I have to broadcast the video onto the Etherweb, which would pretty much kibosh the A.O.M.’s development. The company won’t fund a project that loses out to older technology. But if J.H. loses, he forfeits his entire mining share to me.”

“That’s nuts!” said Jaspen.

“Probably, but it’s legal,” replied Candlebrook. “We already signed contracts on the matter. It’s going to be the easiest seventy-thousand credits I’ve ever made.”

Jaspen’s comm system showed an incoming signal hail. He broke off his maddening call with Candlebrook and took the call. J.H.’s virtual face filled the screen instead, mimicking a stern expression.

“Glad you could make it, kid,” J.H. said. “I only have a minute before the race starts, so…”

“Wait a solar minute! What the hell are you pulling?”

“The only thing that I can pull, kid. It beats waiting around for the inevitable, anyway.”

“Without telling me?”

“You’d never have gone along with it.”

“I guess trust only goes one way, right?” Jaspen hadn’t realized how incensed the whole thing made him. They’d relied on one another for years, had kept things honest and on the level all that time. Jaspen had never felt abandoned or tricked once. This was not the J.H. he’d gotten to know.

“No, kid, I do trust you. I trust you to keep me going and to keep me from doing something stupid. You’re the better part of this partnership. That’s why I know you’ll help me now, even though you’re hurt.”

“Help you?”

“I have some drones on autopilot for clearing debris out of my way, but you know I don’t trust their algorithms. I need you running cleanup as I go.”

“You’re right, J.H., I do keep you from being stupid, because this whole deal is stupid. You’re going to the poorhouse for no reason, and you want me to help you get there. What’s the point?”

“The point is to show them what we already know, Jaspen,” said J.H. “To remind them of what we are.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’ll figure it out. In the meantime, are you helping or not?”

Jaspen’s knee-jerk reaction was to tell J.H. to have fun finding a new partner. Instead, his hands were already typing in override commands to the ore drones around J.H. It hadn’t escaped him that J.H. had called him by his name for the first time ever, and for some reason that had been enough to keep him at his partner’s side.

*

Though separated by distance and cold vacuum, the open radio channels conveyed the murmuring anticipation of the small crowd. This was the most excitement the mining teams had had in months, save for their individual flirts with catastrophe. Even the crew of the ferry ship had tuned in, sneaking peaks on vid-pad displays when they could. Whether they were secretly rooting for the A.O.M. or publicly rooting for J.H., all were in agreement that something once-in-a-lifetime was about to transpire.

A high-pitched electric whistle sounded across the public comm channel. The race had begun.

A split-screen effect showed both the A.O.M. and J.H. biting into the hard rock with their respective tools. Camera drones spun around the two participants, marking their frantic journey into the asteroid. A flurry of hot plasma, flying debris, and rotating limbs obscured J.H.’s scene as his arms methodically pounded and tore the space-borne minerals from their berth. A dance of drones flitted around him, grabbing the flying debris and carrying it off to a floating dump spot many meters away. Nearby, the A.O.M.’s heavy emitters melted the rock section by section, its spider legs shoving aside or dragging out the hot ore as it strove to climb further into the asteroid. The eerie silence amidst all the action gave the event a surreal atmosphere, as if the universe had the mute button pushed down.

Jaspen kept the drones flying in and out as quickly as his wiggling fingers could manage. While drone programming was adequate on most occasions, it didn’t have the same reaction time as human input. A few seconds here and there mattered, because otherwise the loose ore would pile up around J.H. and begin to slow him down.

For the first hour, the action was nonstop and dead even. The A.O.M.’s plasma emitters were more powerful and more efficient, but the mining robot was bigger and required a larger hole for maneuvering and extracting ore. J.H. was going in headfirst, narrowing his profile and reducing the amount of rock he had to dig through. There hadn’t been any rules about how big the hole had to be, and J.H. was taking advantage of his more compact shape as best he could.

The advantage didn’t last long, though. The A.O.M. adapted to the contours of the inner asteroid and began to reduce the diameter of its hole as it burned its way forward. Candlebrook was managing to improve its efficiency, keeping the robot’s focus on digging through and not creating optimum excavations. After the second hour, the A.O.M. had taken the lead by about five meters.

In his own hole, J.H. used three arms to burn, drill, and smash his way through the asteroid while his fourth arm shoved debris out of the way and back out of the hole to the scampering drones. His legs were doing the splits and snagging the walls, his thrusters spurting white gas jets now and then to maintain his position.

He was a constant blur of motion, every arm twisting and flexing with dizzying rapidity. Jaspen kept his mind on the drones, trusting in J.H.’s stubborn nature to persevere. A mechanical body didn’t tire, but a human mind could only maintain sheer repetition so long. Jaspen could already feel himself slowing down on the keyboard as both contestants passed the one-fourth mark at 125 meters.

At four hours in, Jaspen had to let the drone auto-programs take over half the time to give his cramping fingers a break. J.H. was still plowing away as he approached the halfway mark, but the A.O.M. was already past it. With a thirty-meter lead, the robot had been moving ahead steadily. There were no other tricks J.H could pull to increase his digging rate. Jaspen didn’t dare say it, but he was already gearing himself for defeat and dealing with a despondent cyborg.

Then the status monitor depicted something unusual. The A.O.M. had suddenly slowed considerably, its plasma emitters running full tilt but barely melting the ore in front of it. Something in the rock was particularly heat-resistant, but according to the most recent mineral survey the entire asteroid was nothing but soft metal deposits.

“God damn!” exclaimed J.H. on the comm line. “I just hit something hard.”

“Must be the same thing the robot just hit,” replied Jaspen. “Hang tight, I’m doing a quick scan.”

Several drones broke off their debris duty and performed density scans on the asteroid. After a minute, the results appeared on the status screen and elicited a whistle from Jaspen. “Whoever did the last survey needs a refresher in Scanning 101. There’s an iridium vein right through the core of this asteroid. At least when you lose the race, we can stake a claim and get back some of your money.”

“Iridium? How thick is it?”

“About fifty meters where the A.O.M. is. If you keep on your course, you only have thirty-seven meters to chug through, but you might be better off going around it.”

“To hell with that!” It was hard to miss the sudden burst of excitement in J.H.’s tone. He thought this was good news. “Thirty-seven meters is nothing.”

“Thirty-seven meters of iridium, J.H.”

“Exactly. Remember your geology lessons, kid. Iridium is hard, but not that hard. Plus its melting point runs pretty high. If you haven’t noticed, the A.O.M. is all plasma emitter.”

Jaspen felt a rush of hope for the first time since the race started. J.H. was right. It was faster to drill through iridium than to melt it. Three of J.H.’s arms were holding diamond drills now, and he ripped into the iridium vein with a whoop and a laugh.

An hour and a half later, J.H. had passed both the iridium vein and the A.O.M.’s lead. Jaspen could hear Candlebrook on an open channel, cursing at his robot as it remained stuck behind ten meters of iridium. Jaspen laughed as J.H. switched back to his regular digging style and sped on.

The elation didn’t last as long as Jaspen hoped, though. The A.O.M. cleared the iridium vein twenty minutes later, and while J.H. had a twenty-two meter lead the A.O.M. was faster than he was through the soft metals. Two more hours later, J.H. had passed the three-fourths mark with his lead having shrunk to three meters.

Sipping on a liquid lunch tube while his right hand punched hotkeys for the drones, Jaspen began to feel the creeping sense of failure returning. 119 meters remained, roughly two hours of digging left in the race. The A.O.M. was about to pass J.H. again and the drone density scans showed nothing but soft metal ahead. Dumb luck had favored them briefly, but inevitability was about to rear its ugly head.

“Jaspen?” hailed J.H. “You checking the status screen?”

“Yeah, it’s not good,” stated Jaspen. “I’m not telling you to quit or anything, but maybe…”

“The inhibitors, kid.”

“What?”

“Turn them off.”

Jaspen blanched at the order, a very illegal order at that. “Are you insane?!”

“No more than before. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to best that damnable piece of circuits, but now we actually have a shot. I still have a lead. I need to keep it. There’s only one way to do it. Turn off the inhibitors.”

Jaspen was glad his personal line to J.H. was a closed channel. Of course, Jaspen knew how to disengage the inhibitors, could even do it by remote. But even if fines and jail time weren’t enough of a deterrent, there was no telling what J.H. might do to himself without the inhibitors. Machines pushed past their limits had a tendency to break.

“No,” Jaspen declared. “The race isn’t worth it.”

“Yes, it is,” shot back J.H. “Jaspen, I don’t ask lightly. I know what could happen. But this race is worth it. We have to show them what we are.”

“You keep saying that! Look, I know this is personal, but it’s not worth the damage!”

“This is, kid. Most things in life aren’t, but this is. I hope you’ll understand one day, but for now, I just need you to trust me one last time.”

It was a plea. J.H. had never pleaded for anything in his life. Jaspen wondered if damnation was the act of doing something you know you shouldn’t do, or merely being stuck making a decision you didn’t want to make. Regardless, he knew he was damned just the same.

For J.H., then. For whatever cause he thought was worth fighting for.

Jaspen instructed one of the drones to link up with the back of J.H.’s torso. A few quick plasma cuts, and the inhibitor system was disabled. He made a quick modification to the drone’s service log to eliminate any incriminating command lines, and then it was done. J.H. was completely free now. Heaven help them all.

With a warbling war cry, J.H.’s frame sped up and pounded the rock with murderous intention. Gone were the drills and the plasma cutters – only the jack pounders were in play, one in all four hands. He didn’t bother to shove the debris away, didn’t seem to care that the flood of flying rock was pelting away at his steel surface, scraping and denting his exterior. He didn’t acknowledge the increasing strain in his joints, the wearing and tearing of shock absorbers and wiring.

Metal and stone yielded to his powerful blows as he pushed forward. A hush went through the comm lines as the nature of the race changed. J.H. kept his meager lead over the A.O.M. as the robot melted the rock before it, the robotic construct powered up to its limits and surging through the asteroid.

Jaspen watching with growing horror as more and more of J.H.’s systems began to redline on the status screens. J.H. didn’t stop for one moment, didn’t halt his assault on the asteroid even when his lower right arm went dead, or his left leg accidentally got caught at a bad angle and broke off at the knee.

Even with such a heroic effort, the A.O.M. still inched up on J.H.’s lead. As the rock gave way and the surface beckoned once more, it was shaping up to be a photo finish. But then, a mere meter behind J.H. and five meters from the surface, the A.O.M.’s plasma emitters suddenly powered down and fell inactive. Candlebrook cried out in denial as his robot went into shutdown mode, the plasma system overheating from prolonged operation.

The channels were crowded with cries of victory as J.H. broke free onto the surface, scattering rock everywhere as he floated freely into the void. Tug teams made their drones do victory dances and other Weskers gave each other high-fives as they floated in the void. For one shining moment, the universe seemed to be full of nothing but cheers.

But Jaspen didn’t join them. He was too busy staring at the view screens with equal parts sorrow and horror. The camera drone flying near J.H. showed a mangled mess of steel and twisted limbs, every light extinguished and every servo motionless. His holo-face had blinked out of existence. The status screen showed all systems in J.H.’s metal frame as dead… including life support.

*

The company would have liked to sack the entire mining operation for conducting the race, considering the loss of valuable property and work time, as well as the leaked video that ultimately sunk the A.O.M. project. But the Etherweb publicity was so massive that smarter heads spun the whole affair and managed to create a new type of entertainment: astro-mining racing. Firing the people who launched the whole craze would have been bad for business.

Jaspen was never punished over J.H.’s death. The company kept things quiet for the sake of their image, and none of his coworkers held him responsible. Jaspen left the mining business regardless, pretty well off thanks to the iridium claim and J.H. passing on all his savings and earnings to him upon death. Jaspen just couldn’t bring himself to mine any longer. Some victories didn’t feel like victories at all.

The company hadn’t abandoned its quest to find cheaper alternatives to its Wesker workforce, and there were still A.I. projects in the works. J.H.’s sacrifice had bought them time, which had to count for something. But all miners know that time is like a valuable ore: it runs out eventually.

Upon death, cyborg bodies are recycled and used as scrap and spare parts. It was a lot of expensive hardware to bury or throw away. Which was why it was so unusual that J.H.’s brain was left in his exo-frame, his parts gathered in one place and left in orbit around Asteroid V553. A memorial was constructed around him over time, with Jaspen commissioning a plaque that spoke a tribute to J.H., bravest of the Weskers, and how he showed everyone who he was… who they all were.


.

About the Author

Ryan Kinkor has worked in education and social services fields much of his life, but finds writing to be one of his few true pleasures. He particularly likes exploring different realities and the paradoxes of human existence in his writings. While science fiction is his main genre of choice, he does dabble in horror and fantasy from time to time. While he’s still an “aspiring author,” “Man-Driven Steel” is his third published short story. Others works have shown up on The Absent Willow Review Online Magazine and Allegory Online Magazine.

He lives in Nevada City, California, with an annoying cat and a lot of trees (which are also annoying).
Comments for Ryan can be sent to kinkorknight@comcast.net.

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  1. […] Fiction – “Man-Driven Steel” by Ryan Kinkor […]

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