Nob was stuck. His given name was Norris O'Brien, but everybody called him Nob. When standing fully erect, Nob was almost one and a half meters tall. Nob rarely stood fully erect. If Nob had been on Earth, he would have weighed a little over forty kilos. Nob hadn't been on Earth in a very long time, though every time he got stuck, Nob remembered what it was like to be on Earth and wished he could be there instead of being stuck.
Nob was a namach. One of the first, if the truth was known, but this was one of those truths that most namachs chose to forget. Namachs were supposed to be tall and muscular and graceful and healthy and brilliant and all the things that Earth-bound humans dreamt of being when they looked in a mirror. Nob was none of these things.
Nob was skinny. He tripped over his own feet. When in a place with an atmosphere, his nose ran and he suffered from arthritis, which undoubtedly explained why he rarely stood fully erect. Nob was also far from brilliant, which explained, in a way, why Nob was stuck.
Nob was the Chief Mechanic for Ore Processing Plant Number 4 on the asteroid named Pallas. Pallas, Vesta, and Cerus were the three largest asteroids in the asteroid belt circling the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The Chinese had come to them first, surging up from the Earth on a swell of nationalism, capitalism, and pride that saw them build the first lunar colony, the Yang Liwei station, and the first ore mining and processing plants in the asteroids.
Unfortunately for the Chinese, however, this brought such prosperity that the old communist leadership rapidly began to be shoved aside. Not willing to go quietly, these leaders rallied the relatively uneducated and deliberately uncared for masses in the countryside with exhortations of exploitation and dominance by the privileged few. When the New Revolution ended in 2033, China was once again in the hands of the leaders, one hundred million educated and wealthy Chinese had been killed, and China no longer had the resources or desire to deal with their enterprises off planet.
Ever a capitalistic nation, American business took up the cry of those stranded off world and bought the Chinese space faring assets for ten cents on the dollar. The Chinese only had one stipulation, in addition to the cash, of course. All of the scientist and technicians still living on the moon, in the stations, and working in the asteroid belt must be brought home to China. It seemed the leaders somewhat belatedly had realized that electric power plants, weapons plants, and pharmaceutical plants required educated labor, something they suddenly had in short supply.
American business soon realized they also had a problem. The Chinese had designed their stations with almost complete disregard for human comforts, including such things as male and female bathrooms, individual sleeping areas, and adequate radiation shielding, life support, or medical facilities. While separate bathrooms and group sleeping areas could be dealt with, losing highly trained personnel to a radiation leak or an outbreak of cholera was a PR nightmare. Something had to be done to protect the corporate image and labor force.
Enter nanotechnology. In the very early years of the twenty-first century, scientists began to create molecule sized machines, including motors, mechanical actuators, and detectors. As these machines became more sophisticated and easier to produce, applications were found for them in almost every sector of the economy. Nanomachines built nanoprocessors with a skill, precision, and speed unmatched by any other scientific innovation. Nanomachines were incorporated into paints, allowing a person to drive a red car on Tuesday and a blue one on Wednesday. Nanomachines could build diamonds that were absolutely perfect and purify water before it left the polluting location.
Perhaps the largest boon of nanotechnology was realized in medicine. Small nanomachines could enter a person, seek out cancer cells and destroy them, then fade away without leaving a trace. In many cases, the patient never knew they had cancer because an injection of nanomechs introduced to dispel the flu or common cold could also be programmed to look for other problems and correct them as well.
Nanomachines could rejoin broken bones as easily as they rebuilt nerve tissue in a spine. They could change eye color and even correct most birth defects or perceived defects. Were your arms too long? A simple injection could correct this in just a few months. The business of nanomachines was the largest growth industry during the third decade of the twenty-first century.
As with all things, however, there was a dark side to this business. Nanomachines could be very effective assassins. They could rupture blood vessels in the brain, for example, and exit without leaving a trace that they had been there. Nanomachines could be blown onto the back of an engineer working on a classified military project and then relay what they had seen while they were inside the top secret factory. Perhaps darkest of all, however, nanomachines could be used to tailor-make children.
It was the latter which finally forced the governments of the industrialized world to take a good, long look at what they had wrought. They found hidden documents showing that at least ten percent of the recipients of nanomachines were harmed by them either inadvertently by being allergic to an aspect of the nanomachine's makeup or deliberately by medical personnel who would then sell the cures.
As government opinions turned against nanotechnology, so did public opinion. Nanotech was not cheap. The wealthiest ten percent of the population used almost ninety percent of all nanotechnology. They were wealthier and healthier. Their children were genetically constructed super-humans. Those of them inclined to athletics could always outperform those who could not afford to have their lungs enhanced by tiny machines that scrubbed each gulp of air for the maximum amount of oxygen while diminishing the body's natural reaction to physical exertion.
As the world rolled into the fourth decade of the century, wars also began to expand as a result of nanotech. While the industrialized world, for reasons having little to do with morality and a lot to do with public image, would never think of asking a soldier to give up most of his or her life to fight a war more effectively, some developing nations had no such compunctions. Soldiers were augmented with nanomachines that made them faster, never sleep, rarely eat, and even more rarely question orders. The bodies of these soldiers lasted only a few months in this hyper state, but if territories could be won or defended, this was a price easily paid.
By the latter part of the decade, even the industrialized nations were drawn into these wars. They found themselves suddenly confronted with legions of hyper soldiers at their doorsteps augmented by the weapons and nanotechnology they had been selling since before the turn of the century.
These wars culminated in the Malaysian and Philippine conflicts. In the end, access to space had proved to be the deciding factor. America could destroy even the most deeply buried nanomachine factory with simple kinetic weapons. As their nano-warriors died or were killed, the dictators in these countries found they could no longer create more. The wars officially ended in 2053, though minor skirmishes still occur.
The World Congress effectively outlawed the use of nanotechnology to augment humans in 2056, though repairing naturally occurring defects and diseases is still permitted. To enforce this ban, all newly-developed augmentation nanomachines, like those used by the namachs, were designed to slowly degrade under gravity.
Nob had been augmented in 2034, while Off-World Resources Corporation was still looking for a solution to their problems on the moon and in the asteroid belt. Nanotechnology was still in its infancy, but machines were readily available to replace lost bone mass (developed for osteoporosis sufferers), augment weakening muscles (developed for comatose patients), fight most of the bacterial diseases known to modern medicine (developed for travelers to developing nations), and to seal the body away from adverse environments (developed for fire fighters and deep sea divers).
In short, Nob was equipped to survive in space, but just barely, then sent to Pallas to maintain the processing plants there. Most of the subsequent namachs, upon finding that they did not need to spend their salaries on food, clothing, housing, or most of the other things that they had been used to paying for prior to being augmented, eventually bought "upgrades" to make themselves more "valuable" to the company. Nob, being somewhat more mentally challenged than those chosen to be namachs later in the program, never even considered an "upgrade." If he had been asked, he undoubtedly would have said, "Make myself better looking? For what? Who's going to want to come see me all the way out here?" But now Nob was stuck and was indeed glad that someone had come all the way out to visit him.
Annanias Hindley was this month's visiting company representative to the asteroid belt. Each month, some unlucky corporate flunky was chosen to travel from the Irvine, California headquarters of OWR Corp. to one of the main processing plants in the asteroid belt in order to check on and hopefully improve production there.
Annanias came with as much determination as his predecessors to "finally straighten those lazy namachs out." He was rapidly finding that the cold vacuum of space-time itself controlled more of the variables in ore processing than he could possibly grasp. On his third day of his five-day visit he finally noticed that one of the over-arching braces leading to a smelting vat was missing some of it ladder rungs. As this was a clear violation of safety protocols, he immediately dispatched Nob to replace these rungs.
Each of the ore smelters on Pallas and the other processing asteroids used huge mirrors to focus distant sunlight onto tiny vats suspended high above them by arching braces. The raw ore, carefully mined by robots controlled by prospecting namachs, was brought to the processing plants by an almost endless parade of cargo carriers. Machines sorted the ore according to type and then pulverized it prior to storing it in vats that slowly moved along a conveyor belt. When full and a spot was found for it, a vat was lifted into place and left to slowly melt in the heat from mirror-focused sunlight.
Occasionally, a vat would refuse to come loose or to lock into place for reasons not readily apparent to the maintenance circuits installed at the ends of the support arms. When this happened, the Chief Mechanic was called to go out and correct the problem. Ladders were installed on each of the support arms to make this process easier. Some of the newer mechanics simple jumped, gravity being so weak that they could sail to the vats with ease. If they missed, however, they could sail completely off the asteroid and be lost until someone was dispatched to rescue them. Few who did so ever jumped again.
Nob had never jumped. In his mind, the ladders were there for a reason. No one could jump that high on Earth, so why should he believe he could jump that high? He occasionally smashed a thumb or dropped a tool on his foot and in his anger tossed the tool up and off the asteroid, something he could never do on Earth, but his simple brain could never make the connection between a tool floating up and off the asteroid and him floating up and off the asteroid.
So, when Annanias told him to go replace the ladder rungs, he dutifully grabbed his tool belt, wrapped it around his naked waist, attached a line to the box of metal rungs sitting at the bottom of the support arm, and started to climb.
He found the first missing rung, or didn't find it as the case may be, about one third of the way up the support arm. Pulling on the line he had towed up with him, he rapidly pulled the box of metal rungs up to where he was, pulled a rung out of the box, and used the tools on his tool belt to secure the rung to the ladder. Where the previous rung had gone or why the metal where the old rung had attached seemed slightly brittle was a concern he noted for later correction. It would require a torch to cut out the brittle metal and weld in a new piece. For now, The Company wanted him to replace rungs.
Having fixed the first rung, Nob pushed the box of rungs off his leg where it had sat while he worked. He watched it slowly fall toward the surface below him and thought it kind of pretty how things moved in slow motion here on the asteroids like those special effects he remembered from the movies he saw when he was young. It had almost reached the surface, when it suddenly jerked to a stop. He had inadvertently left the rope attached to it over the top of the rung he had just replaced.
That rope was looped over his shoulder. Before Nob could think, the momentum of the box had pulled his shoulder toward the ladder. His head passed seemingly with ease between the rung he had replaced and the rung above it, but when he tried to pull it out again he found the space was just too small. Regardless of how he turned his head, he just could not seem to get his head out. He was stuck.
Annanias had watched Nob slowly climb the ladder but found the sight of the skinny freak just too depressing.
"Why didn't he just jump up there?" He wondered aloud. "As small as he is, I could have tossed him up."
Not for the first time, he wondered what it was The Company expected him to do out here. He had a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering, not Processing Metrics.
"They should have sent Natalie, the little she-weasel."
Natalie was Director of Processing Metrics for the Micro Components Division. Metrics was The Company organization responsible for reviewing all of the processes and procedures each of the other departments developed and then used to produce Product and Customer Value, two concepts Annanias hoped somebody would choke on someday.
"How can you skimp on the production process and hope to produce better Product?" He asked when she returned his Process Control Document to him for the third time with markups that removed yet more steps in the complex chain needed to produce a new micro coil. Glancing at the first couple of pages, he suddenly stopped where an entire section had been marked for deletion.
"We're not checking the nanowires for defects prior to winding the coils? We'll make an entire run with bad wires and not know it!"
"Only marginally possible," she had imperiously answered. "That wire is thoroughly checked by the manufacturer, our plant on Vesta in this case, and then inspected prior to shipment. To check it again would be redundant and would only find defects in an estimated point oh one percent of the product received and then in only small sections of the wire. A few coils might turn out substandard, but those will be found by our customers and returned for prompt replacement."
"And what if our plant on Vesta ships us an entire section of wire that was produced correctly, but labeled incorrectly?"
"Cannot happen," she said as she was leaving. "They check them first."
Two days later they told him he was to be the next inspector for the asteroid belts. His job? To see if any improvements could be made in their processes. He had cursed Natalie all the way to Pallas, though she had sworn she didn't have that kind of clout.
Now that he was here, he could see at least two-dozen ways that processes could be improved. All of them required large amounts of capitol investment, something he knew The Company would never find the budget for. Like each of his predecessors, he would file his report listing all of the things he knew would never be implemented. Things like removing Nob as the Chief Mechanic and putting somebody in his place that had at least half a brain.
"What's taking that idiot so long?" He said as he returned to the main station observation window. There he spotted Nob with his head stuck between the rungs of the ladder. He had dropped the rope and it was slowly settling back to the planetoid as his legs flailed in the hard light of the distant sun.
It was at that moment that all of the absurdities of the past few months slid away to be crowned by Nob's naked body flailing ineffectually against the vacuum of space. Something inside Annanias came undone and he laughed. He laughed so deep and so hard that tears ran from his eyes and snot slid across his perfectly trimmed mustache. When Nob finally braced his arms against both sides of the ladder and pushed until his face turned red, Annanias couldn't take it any longer and dropped to the floor rolling with laughter. It was thus that no one actually witnessed Nob, his head popping loose from the ladder with a sound only he heard; sailed gracefully up and away from Pallas. Nob was no longer stuck.
It took Annanias and a host of robots eleven hours to find Nob. He had floated up from Pallas; arcing around it to land on a smaller asteroid that was slowly sliding behind its mirror-speckled surface. Annanias was still giggling when Nob, hunched over and nose running, slowly plodded into the station's central computer room where Annanias had summoned him.
"Hello Nob. I'm glad I found you," Annanias said from behind a huge smile.
"Uh, okay. Thanks Mr. Hindley. I is glad you finds me too. Still more rungs missing on that ladder. Want I should go out and finish putting them back?" Nob was holding a nutrient bar and looking a little pale. His nanomachines could keep him going for quite some time, but a regular infusion of fresh nutrients helped replace those that slowly leaked away while he was outside. The newer namachs could go weeks without food. Nob felt hungry after only a few hours.
Annanias had not missed the fact that Nob needed to eat, but he needed to explain something to him first. "Nob, can you keep a secret?" When Nob looked at him thoughtfully, shrugged and then nodded, Annanias took that for a yes and continued. Who would believe the little freak anyway?
"I need access to these computers so that I can make some modifications. I have most of the codes for the areas I want to get too, but there are three areas that require the Chief Mechanic first validate what I do won't harm the station. I assure you Nob that I won't harm the station, but some of the products you produce might be a little different. In short, I need you to give me access to the vat temperature controls and the product verification hardware and I need you to keep quiet about what we do here today. Is that okay, Nob?"
Nob looked at the engineer for a long time. Annanias was beginning to grow alarmed, fearing that the loss of nutrients might have somehow damaged the little namach, when Nob simply walked over, typed a few entries into the vat temperature control station then did the same at a console on a side wall labeled Product Verification.
"Is that all Mr. Hindley?" Nob said clutching hard at the nutrient bar. "Want I should fix them rungs now?"
"Sure Nob, when you've eaten and rested, please fix the ladders so they conform to The Company safety regulations. Thanks for helping me make these modifications." Annanias then turned and began bringing up various portions of the station's manufacturing program on the various terminals scattered about the control room.
After a few moments, Nob turned and went to his sparsely furnished room. He slowly chewed on the nutrient bar, while lying on a mattress that had no sheets and no blankets. Since Nob didn't wear clothes, he didn't have a dresser and since he had no need to shower or excrete he had no bathroom. A single writing table sat against one wall and a computer terminal sat against the other.
Done with the nutrient bar, Nob went to the writing table and dutifully logged everything that had happened to him since he had last been in his room. He had a precise memory of each event and could paint them in words on the page with unerring clarity, a gift that had garnered him his nanomachines so many years ago.
He finished and was starting out of the room to go work on the ladder when an odd thought came to him. 'What if Mr. Hindley lied to you?' An inner voice said.
So rarely did this inner voice talk with him, Nob had to stop and sift through long years of memory before realizing it wasn't Mr. Hindley talking to him on the speaker or a ghost come to visit. This was why many people thought Nob was stupid. He wasn't. He just had so many deep and detailed memories to sift through.
"Why would he lie?" He asked himself.
'Mr. Hindley wants to keep what he's doing secret, right?'
"Yeah and I is good at keeping secrets." Nob smiled with pleasure at all the secrets he had kept over the years.
'But if he really wants to keep it secret, maybe he would tell you a lie so even you wouldn't know.'
This reasoning was beginning to hurt Nob's head as he slowly sifted through his long list of memories trying to piece together what he was trying to tell himself. That Hindley might lie to him was certainly a possibility. People in authority had lied to him many times in the past.
"Okay, maybe he did and maybe he didn't, but what can Nob do? Nob just fix broken things at Ore Station Number 4."
'Nob could try to find secret Mr. Hindley is keeping.'
"Why?" Nob asked himself. This seemed to quiet his inner voice for so long that Nob simply shrugged and started for the airlock.
'He might be lying about hurting the station or even Nob,' his mind said as he entered the airlock room.
It had worked before. "Why?" He asked again hoping to quiet these thoughts that hurt his head.
'If it would not hurt the station or Nob why would Mr. Hindley tell you a lie? Would he tell you if he was going to hurt the station or Nob?'
This line of thought hurt more than anything Nob could remember. He just could not seem to understand why Mr. Hindley would lie to him, though something inside his head seemed to think he would.
"Okay, if Mr. Hindley did tell Nob a lie how can Nob find out what Mr. Hindley is doing?"
'There's a terminal in your room,' his thoughts casually answered.
"Yes, Nob play games there sometimes with Angel at Ore Processing Station Number 2." Nob smiled thinking about the beautiful Angel, a namach like Nob who was augmented in the middle 2030's. "Nob should call Angel and see how her is doing."
'Nob can also use the terminal to monitor all of the computer stations on Pallas, right?'
"Yes, Nob can look and see if anything is wrong when he gets up in the morning."
'Nob could use the terminal to see what Mr. Hindley is doing.'
"Yes, Nob can do." Nob paused as he searched his recent memories for why he would want to see what Mr. Hindley was doing. "Oh, so then maybe Nob can know if Mr. Hindley lied to him." He smiled at having reasoned the whole thing out on his own.
'But if he lied, who would believe dumb Nob and not smart Mr. Hindley?' His mind asked as he turned back to pull himself along the rail leading down the hall toward his room.
Now this was stepping into territory that Nob did not like to go. He knew that many people thought him a little slow or ugly, but he usually chose to ignore this in favor of thinking that most of these people just did not know him well. To actually think that someone might trust Mr. Hindley's word and not his was something he did not like to think about.
"You shut up with that stuff," he growled at himself.
'But haven't they done that in the past?'
Nob slowly searched his memory, pausing in his glide down the hall, to find at least a dozen times people had believed someone else and not him simple because he was not considered as smart as the other. The memory of each of those times was almost as vivid as experiencing the events when they occurred and Nob found tears springing to his eyes as the hurt washed over him for each one.
"Yes, but they did not mean to be bad to Nob. They just did not know Nob well."
'Does it matter why they were bad? They will believe Mr. Hindley and not Nob when the station or Nob is hurt.' His mind seemed to be reveling in dragging up these old hurts, something Nob found he did not like about himself.
"What can Nob do then?"
'Nob can use the terminal to record what Mr. Hindley does. Isn't Nob supposed to record everything that happens at Station Number 4?'
"Yes, Nob is supposed to do this, but Nob is supposed to ask before he records actually people."
'But the only one to ask is Mr. Hindley and Mr. Hindley would say no if he didn't want Nob to find out what he was doing.'
His head was starting to hurt again. "Okay, Nob will record and find out what Mr. Hindley is doing, but if he did not lie to Nob, Nob will erase."
That seemed to satisfy his inner voice that grew quiet again, pleasing Nob greatly in the process. Some of the things it had said were troublesome and Nob did not like to be troubled in that way.
He pulled himself back into his room and spent the next twenty minutes remembering how to set up the terminal to record what Mr. Hindley was doing. It wasn't easy and several times his inner voice had to prod him to keep him going. In the end, however, the recording light on his terminal was steadily blinking and Nob breathed a sigh of relief.
"Nob can go fix ladder now."
He pulled himself back along the hall, wrapped his tool belt around his waist once again, grabbed the box of ladder rungs, and went out to fix the ladder. In the cold vacuum of space, Nob did not have to think, just work. He pulled himself up the ladder again and this time made certain his head would not get stuck. He even took the time, once he had finished replacing the rungs of course, to cut out the brittle section of the ladder where he had been stuck before. With a smile, he welded a new section of pipe into the ladder making it once continuous section arching up and over the mirrors of Station Number 4.
When he returned to his room, he found that Mr. Hindley had finished and was busy out at the metal processors, actually another set of machines that separated the molten metal from the slag and transferred it to the nanoprocessors which purified it to the proper levels. The slag was sent to another pile for transfer to the inner systems as well. Nothing went to waste at the processing plants. The scientists on the moons of Mars used the slag to increase their radiation shielding.
With nothing left to do, Nob pulled out another nutrient bar; it had taken him almost four hours to repair the ladder, and started playing back the recording of what Mr. Hindley had done while he was away.
Most of it was simple stuff, which was good. Nob liked simple stuff. He didn't understand why Mr. Hindley was modifying the metal enrichment processes or even why the labels on several of the processed materials had been changed, but that was something the company did all the time so he accepted it as just normal business. But what did not make sense was why Mr. Hindley wanted to keep these things secret.
"Maybe Mr. Hindley thinks Nob will change them back." He said, giving the only explanation his conscious mind could think of.
'Maybe Mr. Hindley did more than you saw,' his inner voice said once more. 'Maybe you need to look at the recording one more time.'
Nob did, this time being very careful to look at each line of code that Mr. Hindley changed. In the end, he could only find one thing that worried him. Mr. Hindley had set the automated systems of the station to revert the code back to its original state in seven days.
At the metal enrichment processors, Annanias was still laughing. "They check them first," he said to no one in particular.