Good old Frankie-boy. Untroubled by urban transformation, as long as there was a stiff drink waiting for you when you woke up.
Vic Thorn rubbed his eyes.
In thirty minutes the automatic alarm signal would rouse the early shift from their beds. Strictly speaking he couldn’t have cared less. As a short-term visitor he was largely free to decide how he was going to spend the day, except that even guests had to adapt to a certain formal framework. Which didn’t necessarily mean getting up early, but they woke you anyway.
If I can make it there,
I’ll make it anywhere—
Thorn started unfastening his belt. Because he thought staying too long in bed was degrading, he didn’t trust anyone else’s automatic devices to allow him to spend as little time of his life as possible asleep. Particularly since he liked to decide for himself who or what summoned him back to consciousness. Thorn loved turning his music systems up to the max. And he preferred to entrust his wake-up call to the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Junior, the disreputable heroes of times past, for whom he felt an almost romantic affection. And up here nothing, nothing at all, was conducive to the habits of the Rat Pack. Even Dean Martin’s now famous observation that ‘You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on’ was physically invalidated, and nor would the inveterate toper have been able to indulge his predilection for falling off his bar-stool and tottering out into the street. At 35,786 kilometres above the Earth’s surface there were no prostitutes waiting for you outside the door, just lethal, airless space.
King of the hill, top of the heap—
Thorn hummed along with the tune, mumbling a wonky-sounding New York, New York. With a faint twitch, he pushed himself away and floated off his bunk, drifted to the small, round porthole of his cabin and looked outside.
* * *
In the city that never slept, Huros-ED-4 was on the way to his next assignment.
He wasn’t bothered by the cold of space or the total lack of atmosphere. The sequence of day and night which, at such a vast distance from the Earth, was in any case based more on general agreement than on sensory experience, held no validity for him. His alarm call was made in the language of the programmers. Huros-ED stood for Humanoid Robotic System for Extravehicular Demands, the 4 placed him along with another nineteen of his kind, each one two metres tall, torso and head entirely humanoid, while their exaggeratedly long arms in their resting state recalled the raptorial claws of a praying mantis. When required, they unfolded with admirable agility, and with hands that were able to perform extremely difficult operations. A second, smaller pair of arms emerged from the broad chest, packed with electronics, and these were used to provide assistance. The legs, however, were completely absent. Admittedly the Huros-ED had a waist and a pelvis, but where the hips would have been in a human being there sprouted flexible grippers with devices that allowed him to fasten himself on wherever he happened to be needed. During the breaks he looked for a sheltered niche, connected his batteries to the mains supply, topped up the tanks of his navigation nozzles with fuel and settled down to a spot of mechanical contemplation.
By now the last break was eight hours ago. Since then Huros-ED-4 had been working away industriously in the most diverse spots of the gigantic space station. In the outer zone of the roof, as the part turned towards the zenith was called, he had helped to swap ageing solar panels for new ones, in the wharf he had adjusted the floodlights for Dock 2, where one of the spaceships for the planned Mars mission was currently under construction. Then he had been dispatched a hundred metres lower to the scientific payloads fastened along the cantilevers, to remove the defective platinum parts from a measuring instrument designed to scan the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. After this reconditioning had been successfully completed, his task was to go back inside the spaceport to investigate one of the manipulator arms that had ceased to function in the middle of a loading process.
The spaceport: that meant descending a bit further along the outside of the station, to a ring 180 metres in diameter, with eight berths for incoming and outgoing moon shuttles, and a further eight for evacuation pods. Leaving aside the fact that the ships anchored there were passing through a vacuum rather than through water, what went on around the ring was not much different from what happened in Hamburg or Rotterdam, the big terrestrial seaports, meaning that it too had cranes, huge robot arms on rails, called manipulators. One of these had packed in halfway through the loading process of a freight and passenger shuttle that was to start its journey to the Moon in only a few hours’ time. The arm should have been working, but with mechanical stubbornness it absolutely refused to move, and instead hung, effectors spread, half inside the shuttle’s loading area and half outside, which meant that the ship’s opened body couldn’t be closed.
On stipulated flight-paths, Huros-ED-4 passed alongside docked shuttles, airlocks and connecting tunnels, spherical tanks, containers and masts until he reached the defective arm that glinted coldly in the unfiltered sunlight. The cameras behind the visor on his head and the ends of limbs sent pictures to the control centre as he passed close by the construction and subjected every square centimetre to detailed analysis. The control constantly compared these pictures with the images located in his data storage system, until it had found the reason for the failure.
The control instructed him to clean the arm.
He stopped. Someone in his central steering module said, ‘Fucking shit!’, prompting a query from Huros-ED-4. Although programmed to respond to the human voice, he could detect no meaningful order in the exclamation. The control room neglected to repeat the words, so at first he did nothing but examine the damage. Tiny splinters were wedged into the joint of the manipulator. A long, deep gash ran diagonally across the top of the joint’s structure, gaping like a wound. At first sight the electronics seemed to be intact, meaning that the damage was purely material although serious enough to have caused the manipulator to switch off.
The control room issued an instruction to clean the joint.
Had he been a human being, his behaviour might have been described as indecisive. At length he requested further information, thus indicating in his own vague way that the task was beyond his capabilities. Revolutionary a piece of engineering though he was – sensor-based steering, sensory impression feedback, flexible and autonomous operation – robots were still machines that thought in templates. He probably knew they were there, but he didn’t know what they were. Likewise, he recorded the tear, but was unable to match it with familiar information. As a result the defective places did not exist for him. Consequently it was hard to tell exactly what he was supposed to be cleaning, so he didn’t clean anything at all.
A smattering of consciousness, and robots would have realised that their lives were mercifully free of anxiety.
* * *
But everyone else was anxious enough to be going on with. Vic Thorn had had a long shower, listened to ‘My Way’, put on a T-shirt, trainers and shorts, and had just decided to spend the day in the fitness studio when the call came from headquarters.
‘You could be useful to us in solving a problem,’ said Ed Haskin, under whose responsibility the spaceport and the systems attached to it fell.
‘Right now?’ Thorn hesitated. ‘I was planning to spend a bit of time on the treadmill.’
‘Right now would be better.’
‘It looks as if there are problems with your spaceship.’
Thorn bit his lower lip. A thousand alarm bells went off in his head at the idea that his take-off might be delayed. Bad, very bad! The ship was supposed to leave the port at about midday, with him and another seven astronauts on board, to relieve the crew of the American moon base who, after six months of selenic exile, were succumbing to hallucinations of tarmac roads, carpeted flats, sausages, meadows and a sky full of colour, clouds and rain. On top of that, Thorn was scheduled to be one of the two pilots for the two-and-a-half-day flight and, to cap it all, to be leader of the crew, which explained why they were talking to him rather than anyone else. And there was another reason why any hesitation struck him as more than inopportune—
‘What’s up with the crate?’ he asked, with deliberate indifference. ‘Doesn’t it want to fly?’
‘Oh, it wants to fly all right, but it can’t. There was a glitch during loading. The manipulator broke down and blocked the hatches. We can’t shut the freight area.’
‘I see.’ Relief flooded through Thorn. A defective manipulator could be dealt with.
‘And you know why it broke down? Debris. A heavy fall.’
Thorn sighed. Space debris, whose unwelcome omnipresence was down to an unparallelled orbital congestion, begun in the 1950s by the Soviets with their Sputnik launches. Since then, the remnants of thousands of missions had circulated at every altitude: burnt-out propulsion stages, decommissioned and forgotten satellites, wreckage from countless explosions and collisions, from complete reactors to tiny fragments of shrapnel, drops of frozen coolant, screws and wires, bits of plastic and metal, scraps of gold foil and vestiges of flaked-off paint. The constant fracturing of the splinters with each fresh collision meant that they were breeding like rodents. By now the number of objects larger than one centimetre was estimated at 900,000. Barely three per cent of these were constantly monitored, and the ominous remainder, along with billions of smaller particles and micrometeorites, was on its way elsewhere – in case of doubt, with the inevitability with which insects ended up on windscreens, towards wherever you happened to be.