196 Askadar had been mined for two years and still had over a million metric tons of ore to be recovered. The asteroid was pulled into lunar orbit in 2081 by the tractor ship Aegeus and once stable, a mining ship was launched from the lunar refinery on the rim of the Peary Crater. That site receives nearly continuous sunlight and makes it ideal for the solar furnaces necessary to refine the minerals taken from 196 Askadar. Iron and the other common metals go to the ship fabrication sites on the Moon. Gold, silver, and platinum go back to Earth.
The first mining ship, the Browhudar, carried on it’s nose a circular rasping plow thirty meters in diameter that dug a circular ring into the side of 196 Askadar. Once the resulting planar surface had been completed, the Browhudar backed away from 196 Askadar and returned to the space port at Peary Crater. The rasping nose was replaced with a hemisphere of steel and diamond glass with a docking station on the side. This hemispherical structure was designated by The Lunar Mining and Extraction Corporation as an Environmental Sustaining Enclosure, or ESE for short.
The Browhudar returned to 196 Askadar and placed the rim of the ESE into the rasped ring, and workers in EVA suits attached the hemisphere to 196 Askadar with a thousand iron/cobalt alloy anchor bolts. More workers sealed the rim with a cement mixture manufactured from lunar soil and water obtained from ice trapped in craters at the south pole of the moon. Once the seal was complete and inspected, the Browhudar disconnected from the docking station and returned to Peary Crater.
Container ships from the gas generation plant at the south pole then brought a mix of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen to the hemisphere and filled it with an atmosphere suitable for human habitation. An automatic atmosphere controller with a carbon dioxide scrubber and reserve tanks of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen was started to maintain the appropriate concentrations of each gas once human miners occupied the ESE. It would also add atmosphere as the mine became enlarged. That let the miners work without EVA suits.
Another container ship and more workers installed two emergency escape pods in the side of the ESE at ground level. These were required by Earth law to have enough fuel and food to carry two people each back to Earth, and a further supply of food for a week in case the pod had to land somewhere besides a spaceport. Normally, the inhabitants would go back to the moon if something happened to the ESE or to the asteroid, but there was always a risk that an asteroid explosion would make the moon bases uninhabitable. That had happened once in the early development of asteroid mining. A hundred and twenty three employees of LMEC were killed and it took five years and two billion in Earth currency to put the infrastructure back in place. There were another fifty similar pods at Copernicus Space Port, Peary Crater and at the gas generation plant at the lunar south pole.
Other ships brought materials and workers who established a habitat, storage facilities, and placed mining equipment inside the ESE. After one Earth month, 196 Askadar was prepared for mining activities. A ship docked at the ESE and unloaded supplies for three for a year and three men – an asteroid mining engineer and two miners.
On that mining mission to 196 Askadar, they also unloaded a robotic sex surrogate. The psychiatrists of LMEC’s research department predicted isolation from women for the year-long duration of the miner’s stay on an asteroid would result in friction among the men and loss of productivity. The expense of transporting the miners from the ESE to the lunar colony on any sort of regular basis was prohibitive. The sex surrogate was the answer to that problem.
Lucy, as all sex surrogates furnished to the eighteen asteroid mining sites were named, was blonde, beautiful, and programmed to fulfill the needs of the miners. Her design had been developed after numerous studies of male preferences as to hair color, breast size and what the robot engineers had dubbed “tube constriction”. That meant they designed her sexual apparatus to automatically accommodate a range of male organ sizes so no miner would feel she was too tight or too loose.
Most miners were happy with Lucy at first. She wouldn’t refuse any request and was available at any time. Although some miners wanted to indulge in her capabilities at the same time, most preferred to be alone with her. Lucy had her own quarters in the habitat to facilitate both requests.
After a year of mining though, many miners complained that Lucy’s actions were becoming predictable and therefore boring. By the eleventh month of their stay on an asteroid, the miners were becoming easily upset and a few fights had even ensued. The engineers at LMEC increased Lucy’s memory capacity and programmed an additional hundred thousand motions and responses into her database.
After the second crop of miners had served their term in the ESE’s of the asteroids circling the moon, it became apparent that Lucy was still not an acceptable substitute for a human female. The miners complained about dryness and looseness. Examination of several Lucys revealed the mechanisms for lube dispensing and tube tensioning were somewhat prone to failure due to the number of components and the complexity of the assemblies.
The engineers at LMEC were still working on the problem when I was assigned to 196 Askadar as the asteroid mining engineer. My job was to instruct the miners where to drill, the size of the hydrogen/oxygen demolition charges to use and how to place them, and to inspect the quality of the ore removed from the asteroid. In addition, I was the man in charge of the operation, the third man who would mediate any disputes and the one who would control the schedule of the sex surrogate.
When we gathered at the spaceport at Copernicus, I assumed another Lucy would be accompanying us to 196 Askadar. I was surprised to see a slender redhead standing there dressed in LMEC issued coveralls. I figured they’d just changed Lucy’s hair color for some reason. It looked like her breasts were a little smaller too, although it was hard to tell because the coveralls didn’t fit her very well.
Before we climbed into the shuttle, my boss walked up and held out his hand. That was a little different, too. I’d never known Jack to go to the space port before a mining contingent left. I shook his hand and he smiled.
“Let’s go in the conference room. I have some information you need to know.”
When we sat down, he smiled again.
“Tom, you’ll have to be careful up there with your demolition charges. When Robby came back last week, he said he’d seen fissures developing in the working face of the mine. He wasn’t too worried about them, but he said anything much bigger than a hundred joules might cause them to open enough to proliferate. I don’t have to tell you what that would mean. Just use your experience. Robby’s only worked at a mine twice, so he may just be exaggerating due to inexperience.
“There’s one other thing. I saw you looking at the redhead. She’s not a sex bot. She’s a real woman, well, as real as we wanted to make her. Her name is Barbara, and she’s a clone, but with some important differences from an actual woman.”
Jack handed me a thin booklet.
“It’s all in this manual, but I’ll give you the important stuff. She has memories we gave her from her childhood up until this morning. She thinks she was born on Earth in Idaho twenty years ago, and came to the moon with her mother and father when she was sixteen. We implanted images of her father and mother into her memory. They’re just composites, but she believes they’re real. She also believes they died two years ago.
“We gave her a strong libido by increasing her production of the required hormones, but didn’t give her the ability to reproduce. She’ll be no different than any other woman as far as the complaints we’ve received from the miners from past tours.
“She can speak English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Mandarin, so there shouldn’t be any language difficulties, and to a certain extent, she can learn. Your men will have to teach her what they like, but she’ll accommodate them once she learns what that is.
I ask Jack what “to a certain extent meant”.
“We gave her the basic knowledge of sex, but she’ll have to learn how to do what your men want. She can do that if they’re willing to teach her. Just make sure they know they have to teach her and not force her to do something. If they force her, she’ll start becoming selective and we can’t have that.”
“What she can’t learn because we genetically engineered away that part of her brain is things like loyalty and love. She’ll treat each of you like you were the only one, but she really doesn’t think that. She thinks of you as all the same and she can’t learn to think any differently.
“One other thing you should know about Barbara. She looks human, but by a strict definition she isn’t. Barbara doesn’t have any emotions, and we’ve engineered her to prevent her from developing any. She doesn’t have a conscience or a sense of self. It’s very important that none of you get too attached to her because of what we’ll have to do with her when you bring her back.
“What does that mean?”
“We had to make her intelligent enough she’d be able to properly respond to a lot of different men. We just don’t know, but we’re afraid she might be smart enough she could learn about our mining process. That process is one of the most carefully guarded secrets NMEC has. It’s what makes asteroid mining profitable enough to pay for the infrastructure we’ve built here on the moon, the ESEs, and the equipment you’ll be using. If a competitor should get hold of her, we could lose everything. When you bring her back, she’ll be…deactivated, so to speak.”
“You mean killed?”
“I was afraid you’d think something like that. No, it won’t be murder, not legally. Like I said, she doesn’t have a sense of self, therefore, she’s no different than a sexbot. We’ll just put her to sleep and she won’t wake up. I know, you’re thinking we could just reprogram her like we would a sexbot. We’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. Once a clone learns something, it’s there until they die. We don’t understand why yet, but that’s how it is. Deactivation is the only way.”
I was still a little dumbfounded by what Jack was telling me.
“You’ve done this before? I thought it was illegal to make a human clone. The World Congress outlawed that over fifty years ago, didn’t it?”
“Barbara is the fourth prototype. The others gave us the information we needed to tweak the cloning process. Yes, the World Congress did outlaw cloning of humans, but by their definition of a human clone, Barbara really isn’t human. To fall within their definition, she would have to have a sense of self and be capable of learning right from wrong. I already told you she doesn’t have a sense of self and she can only learn certain things. A normal person would have learned right from wrong at a very early age. We didn’t give her those memories.”
“That really sucks, Jack. You make a person and then kill them when you’re done with them.”
“She’s not a person, Tom, and you can’t let yourself start thinking she is. I know it sounds cruel, but we had to do something. Half our miners have gone to our competiton already because of the sex bots, and we’re having trouble recruiting more. We can’t afford to put real women on a mining site like our competition does.”
When I boarded the shuttle, I still wasn’t happy. A lot of things had changed pretty rapidly in the world during my thirty years, but this was too much too fast, and Jack’s reasoning was based on some pretty questionable legal interpretations. I could understand his point and his motives, but I didn’t like either.
I didn’t really have a choice. My contract with LMEC said I had to go where they sent me and do what they instructed me to do. If I’d said he could stuff it up his ass, Jack would have just replaced me, and I’d have been on my way back to Earth with no job, no money, and probably not much of a chance of getting either in the asteroid mining field again.
After two hours in the shuttle, it locked up with the ESE and we took the elevator down to the surface of the asteroid. It took the rest of the day to unload our supplies and put them in storage, and then to get settled in to the habitat. The shuttle undocked and went back to Copernicus Space Port, but another from Peary Crater would return in three Earth days to pick up the first load of ore. Once I was done, I took the elevator down into the mine to have a look at the fissures Bobby had reported.
They weren’t as bad as I’d thought they might be. Most of these asteroids are just a bunch of rocks held together by gravity. There are cracks all over the place between those rocks, but for the most part, gravity holds them together so tightly they’re effectively a solid mass. The fissures Bobby had seen were a little bigger than the normal cracks, but they still looked sound enough to tolerate some small charges.
I made a mental note to instruct Walt and Mack to not use anything over five joules per charge and to not use more than five at a time. That would still yield as much ore as we could collect and bring to the surface in one Earth day. It was probable we’d be able to work our way around the fissures at some point and then up the energy of the charges.
I didn’t know Walt or Mack. I’d talked to them a little, but not enough to get a feel about what kind of men they were. All I knew about them is they’d worked together on several asteroids over the past ten years. I asked Barbara to stay in her room and then called Walt and Mack into the living area to explain what I’d found with the fissures and to set up a schedule for Barbara.
“OK, I looked in the mine while ago because it was reported there were fissures developing in the rock. I did find a few, but they don’t look all that bad to me. Still, just to be safe, we’ll stick with five joule charges and no more than five charges per blast. That should let us work around the fissures and back into solid rock. Then we’ll take out the column with the fissures and up the charge size. I don’t think I have to tell you two much else. You’ve been mining asteroids for a lot longer than I have.”
“You’re gonna limit us to five joules and only five at a time? Fuck, that’ll take forever to get that shit in small enough pieces the loaders can handle it. We’ll be busting our asses with hand crushers to do it. You sure about those fissures?”
“Yes, I’m sure. The risk is small, but you don’t want to be in the mine if one opens up. The pressure difference would strain you through the crack like shit through a goose.”
Mack tried another option.
“What if we just use three, ten Joule charges? That’s about the same energy but it’ll bring down more rock at a time and in smaller pieces.”
I shook my head.
“No. With five, five joule charges, we can space them out so there’s no big energy release in any one spot. If we do what you want, I’m pretty sure one of those fissures will start opening up. We might not see it because it’ll be opening toward the outside, but once it starts, it won’t stop until it breaks through.”
Walt looked at Mack and grinned.
“Well, Mack, I guess the engineer knows best. He’s probably never set a charge, but these college men know what they’re doing.”
I’d caught the sarcasm, but didn’t want to start things out on the wrong foot. I had to live with these two for the next year. Instead of replying, I explained about Barbara.
“The woman who boarded the shuttle with us isn’t a sex bot. She’s a woman, but she doesn’t know very much about anything. She understands about sex, but she won’t know what you like. You’ll have to teach her, but make sure you’re teaching and not forcing. If you force her to do something, she’ll probably not want to be with you again and I’ll have to honor that.”
Mack looked at me and frowned.
“You mean I have to teach her how to fuck?”
“No, she understands that, but it’s mostly the mechanics of sex she understands. What you’ll have to teach her is how you like to have sex.”
“Does she know how to suck a cock? I always want my cock sucked for a while before I fuck.”
“Yeah, me too”, said Mack. “How about fucking her in the ass? Does she do that?”
I was starting to not like either Walt or Mack. I’d sort of gotten my head around what Barbara was, but dammit, I still thought of her as a woman and they were talking about her like she was some rubber sex bot they could do anything with. I also decided it was time to remind them I was in charge. Walt’s comment about college men was still bothering me.
“I wasn’t told about either. All I was told is she’ll do what you want once she understands what that is. You’ll have to teach her, and I want to emphasize the word ‘teach’. If I learn that either of you has forced Barbara to do anything, anything at all, I’ll have your contract cancelled and you’ll end up back on Earth trying to figure out what you’re going to do next. Is that clear?”
Both men mumbled something about me being an asshole but they said they’d do as I’d instructed.
“OK, now that we understand each other, how do you want to set up the schedule with Barbara? We can let the main computer do the schedule or I can just pick. Which do you want?”
They wanted the computer, so I input our names and the dates we’d be on site. In about two seconds, the screen showed the schedule. Mack drew that night, Walt the next night, and I was last. The schedule repeated like that for the rest of the year. Mack grinned.
“Well, I’ll see you guys in the morning. Barbara and I have some learning to do. Walt, I’ll be sure to tell her you have a little cock so she won’t be surprised.”
The first two days went about like I’d planned. We made one blast each morning and then spent the rest of the day using the loaders to pick up the ore and put it into bins and then transporting the bins to the surface. The hand crushers were required a little, but not as much as Walt feared. The bins would be packed into the shuttles that docked every other day.
I didn’t see much of Barbara. I was either down in the mine or she was with Walt or Mack. The third night was my time with her, and I was more interested in finding out if she was really like Jack said than in having sex.
Barbara ate with us just as she had the two previous nights, then went to her quarters. I followed about half an hour later. When I knocked on the door, I heard her say, “Come in.”
I wasn’t ready for what I saw. Barbara was laying on her bed, naked and with her legs spread wide. She looked at me and smiled.
“Come fuck me. I want to suck your cock first, but after that, I want you to fuck me.”
I walked to the bed and sat down.
“Where did you get all this?”
“Why are you naked and where did you learn to say that?”
“Mack and Walt said this is what I should do and say when you men come to see me. Isn’t this what you wanted?”
“Well, I sort of like undressing a woman, and I’m not really into her saying things like that.”
Barbara wrinkled up her brow.
“Mack and Walt liked it. What should I do for you?”
“Next time, stay dressed, and don’t tell me what to do. I can figure that out all by myself.”
“OK. Are you going to fuck me now? Oh, you probably didn’t want me to say that either, did you?”
“Well, no, but I understand. Were they nice to you, Walt and Mack?”
“Oh, yeah. Mack taught me how to suck his cock, and Walt said I did a good job. They fucked me after that. I wanted them to fuck me again, but it took a long time. They were too soft at first and I had to suck their cocks to make them hard again. I need to be fucked a lot. My mother told me fucking was good, but she said it would hurt the first time. It didn’t hurt though. I don’t know why.”
If she’d been a robot, it would have been funny. Barbara wasn’t a robot though.
“Barbara, you can say things like that when you’re with Mack or Walt, but please don’t do it when we’re together. It bothers me.”
“What should I say?”
“Nothing unless you’re feeling something. Then you can say anything you want. Just don’t keep saying ‘fuck’.”
Barbara grinned again.
“OK. Are you going to teach me what you like now?”
“I’m going to try.”
Her breasts weren’t as large as I remembered a Lucy’s being, but they were soft, round, and they didn’t feel like silicone when I fondled them. They just sort of moved away from my fingers. It was a welcome change from Lucy. So was what Barbara did.
If you squeezed a Lucy’s breasts, she’d say something like “I love it when you do that” or “You have nice hands”. At my first touch, Barbara caught her breath.
“Mack and Walt didn’t do that. Do it some more. I like how it makes me feel.”
“How does it make you feel?”
“Mmm…this little tingle went all the way from my boobs down to my tummy.”
I stroked her breasts, I gently squeezed her breasts, and when I ran a fingertip around her right nipple bed, Barbara shivered and then looked down at her right breast.
“My boobs have gotten all bumpy like that when I got cold, but being cold never felt like this. Is that supposed to happen to me?”
“You mean the little bumps and wrinkles? Yes, if you’re getting excited.”
“They didn’t do that with Mack or Walt.”
“Well, maybe they were in too big of a hurry. I’m not.”
“Show me what else you can do.”
Barbara hadn’t been very vocal except to ask me questions. That changed when I put two fingertips around her left nipple and gently squeezed. She made a little moan and then murmured, “do that again”.
Barbara might not have known much about sex, but the engineers at LMEC had gotten the response part right. Just a touch to her nipples resulted in a quiet little moan. When I kissed them, the moan got louder. When I sucked her right nipple between my lips, Barbara caught her breath and her hips lifted just a little.
She took a deep breath, then whispered.
“Is this how you like to fu…I mean, have sex?”
“It’s part of what I like.”
“I like it too. What comes next?”
A Lucy was soft and smooth, but they were nothing like Barbara. From her breasts to her flat tummy to the swell just above her mound, she was pure silk. Unlike a Lucy, she wasn’t shaved either. Crimson curls covered her sex. I swirled my fingertips through those curls and Barbara moaned again. After working the tangled hair apart, I stroked her slit. Barbara caught her breath again, and I felt her stroke my back.
“Are you going to fu…put your cock in me now?”
“No, not yet. I don’t think you’re probably ready for that.”
“Mack and Walt didn’t wait.”
“That’s just the difference between them and me.”
The fingers on my back kept stroking as I slipped a fingertip between her lips. Barbara was already wet and slippery, but since I was teaching her what I like, I thought she should get the whole lesson.
I stroked her rippled inner lips while she moaned. I moved up to her clit and gave it a very soft rub. Barbara gasped and her hips rocked up. When I slipped my finger inside her, Barbara moaned and tried to push my finger in deeper by lifting her hips.
She seemed to be getting very aroused from such a little amount of foreplay. It was the hormones I figured, but I just wasn’t used to a woman responding so much so quickly. The Lucy I’d used on my last job was ready in seconds, but that was just programming and didn’t mean she was really feeling anything. Barbara was truly aroused, and I was finding it hard to not go further. She made it a lot harder when she wrapped her slender fingers around my stiff cock and started stroking it.
“Mack and Walt wanted me to do this to them. Do you like it too?”
“Yes, but don’t do it very hard or you’ll spoil it for both of us.”
“With them, I only did it a little and then they’d put their cock in me. Are you ready to put your cock in me now?”
“Just about. Relax and let yourself feel what I’m doing. If you do, then I’ll be ready.”
I slipped my finger down to Barbara’s entrance and made a little circular stroke before pushing my finger inside her. She moaned and lifted her hips. I felt her nails dig into my back.
Just a few strokes later, Barbara was rocking her hips into each stroke of my finger. I was sure she was ready when she contracted around my finger and I felt a little stream of wet warmth flown onto my hand. I knelt between her upraised thighs and positioned my cock head between her parted outer lips.
Barbara shuddered when my cock slipped inside her. I looked up at her face. Her mouth was open and her eyes were squeezed shut. I pushed my cock deeper, and Barbara moaned so loudly I was sure the sound carried all over the habitat. When I pushed my cock all the way in, she gasped, wrapped her legs around my back, and pulled her body up and tried to push my cock in deeper.
After that, well, I’d been with a few real women before, and I’d had a Lucy for two years prior. None of them were like Barbara. The real women had sort of just laid there until the final moment when they came. Even then, usually they just jerked once or twice and moaned a little. A Lucy would dance all over the bed moaning like crazy.
Barbara didn’t do either. She just started using her legs to pull me into her body and her hands were stroking my back. The only sound I heard was when I kissed her. After our tongues met, she purred a moan into my mouth and I felt her tummy roll against mine.
She did get vocal a while later. At first, she was just matching my strokes, but I felt her rock her hips a little faster. I sped up and so did she. I’d been going slow because it felt good, so we really didn’t speed up that much. It was just enough I could feel the tension starting to build.
I felt it in Barbara too. She rolled her face to the side and she was starting to pant. I kept feeling little contractions around my cock. I was getting close to losing it when she dug her heels into the mattress, lifted her body up, groaned, and raked her nails down my back.
She fell back to the bed, but on my next stroke, she raised up again and started to shudder. I felt her dig her nails into my ass. When I tried to pull back out, she arched up even higher and tried to keep my cock inside her. I was able to make two more strokes before the surge raced up my cock. About the time I groaned and the second surge splashed inside her, Barbara cried out and her hips shook up and down so fast I didn’t have to stroke.
My third spurt left me gasping and she was still arched up. She dropped her hands to the mattress, grabbed the sheets with both hands, and then lurched her body up hard. She hung there, her hips doing a little up and down rocking dance while she held her breath. Then, she gasped and eased back down to the bed. I went with her, mostly because she’d grabbed my ass again and wouldn’t let me pull my cock out of her.
We lay there for a while before she opened her eyes. When she did, she smiled.
“Is that what you like?”
“Am I supposed to feel like I do?”
“I don’t know. How do you feel?”
“Mmm…I feel all warm inside and all tingly and just really, really happy.”
“Yes, that’s how you’re supposed to feel if we did it right.”
“Hack and Walt must not do it right then, because I didn’t feel this way with them. It felt good to have them fu…to have them have sex with me, but not as good as this.”
A little bell went off in my head when she said that. Jack had said Barbara wouldn’t have a preference of which man she slept with, but she’d just told me she did. I wondered if she was just saying that to make me feel good, or if she really meant it.
I decided it was just probably what she thought she should say. I did have this nagging doubt though. She could have faked the orgasm she’d had, but if she did, she was damned good at it, better than I figured a girl so young would be. It was possible LMEC had put those words in her mind somehow, but I didn’t think they could implant the way she responded.
I felt her tap me on the shoulder.
“What are you thinking about?”
Barbara stroked my cheek with her fingertip.
“As long as you’re here, could we do it again? I want to see if it’s the same the second time.”
It was the same, except it was better. When I went back to my room, I was pretty convinced Barbara hadn’t been faking it. There was no way a human could consciously move her body that fast. It had to be involuntary. The sheet on her bed was really wet too and I knew I wasn’t all me.
The next day everything went well. I thought the blast from the charges Walt set was a little bigger than the day before, but there’s always some variation between charges, so I didn’t think anything about it. We loaded the bins and then when the shuttle docked, loaded the bins into the shuttle. The shuttle un-docked and left, and we went to eat.
The next morning we were sitting there drinking coffee after breakfast when Mack asked me about Barbara.
“What the fuck did you tell Barbara when you fucked her?”
“Just what I liked, why?”
“The little bitch kept trying to get me to rub her tits and when I put my cock in her, she kept saying I should slow down. I didn’t do either. She was a good fuck, but I don’t want no fucking woman telling me how to fuck her.”
“I don’t know what LMEC put in her head. Maybe they put more in there than Jack told me.”
“Well, she better not do that again. I tell a woman how to fuck me, not the reverse."
I sent Mack and Ward to load the elevator with more charges. As soon as they left, I knocked on Barbara’s door. She smiled when she opened it.
“I didn’t think you’d be back until the day after today.”
I stepped into her room and closed the door.
“Barbara, I won’t be with you until tomorrow night, but I need to tell you something. It would be best if you don’t tell Mack or Ward about how we have sex. Just do what they say they like. Can you do that?”
“Is that why Mack seemed upset last night? All I wanted to do was feel like I did with you.”
“Yes, and that’s why I’m telling you what I am. We have to be here for a year, and it would make that easier if you just do what they like.”
“But I really liked feeling like I did with you.”
“I know, and I liked it too, but I need you to do what I said. Can you do it?”
“I suppose so. I won’t like it though.”
I left then and went to the elevator. Mack and Ward were waiting on me. Mack grinned.
“Went back for a quickie, did you?”
“No, I went back to check one of my books to see the best way to dig around those fissures without making them any bigger.”
“And what did your book say?”
“That we’re doing things like we should. I think in another week or so we’ll have the column free. If the wall behind it doesn’t have any fissures, we’ll take out the column and keep going.”
I didn’t like the way Ward said, “Whatever you say, boss man, whatever you say.”
I marked where I wanted the bore hole locations on the rock face with chalk and then watched the fissures to see if they were moving when Mack and Ward used the air drills to sink the holes. They didn’t seem to be doing anything, so I spent the time mapping out how far we’d expanded the mine. I was still taking laser measurements when Ward came back to pick up the charges. As he walked away, I said, “remember, five joule charges and only five of them”.
“Right”, was all he said, but his voice told me he wasn’t pleased. I didn’t really care if he was pleased or not. We didn’t have a quota to meet, and my way was the safe way.
Mack and Walt came back to the elevator just as I was stepping into the car.
“They’re all placed. All we need to do is touch ‘em off. You going somewhere?”
“Yeah. I just shot the new section and I’m going to go add it to the database so they’ll know back at the smelter how much we’ve dug. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“You want us to wait or should we touch ‘em off.”
“Go ahead. It’ll be a while before the dust settles. I’ll be back by then.”
I’d just stepped out of the elevator when the ground under me shook like hell. I knew immediately that Walt and Mack had used more than the twenty five total joule’s I’d told them to use. I might have felt a small tremor if they had, but nothing like this. A second later a plume of dust flew out of the shaft and then immediately started going back in. There was only one reason that dust would be going back inside the shaft. One of the fissures had broken through to the outside of the asteroid and the pressurized atmosphere inside the ESE was pushing the dust back down into the mine and out into space.
The atmosphere makeup system was good for about half as much atmosphere as the ESE held, but that wasn’t going to last long if the crack was very large. I started running for the escape pod and hoped Mack and Ward had sense enough to do the same. When I looked back at the shaft, I knew it didn’t make any difference if they did or not. The dust from the mine was gone and had been replaced by a swirling column of atmosphere that had picked up dust and debris from the floor of the ESE. It looked like the swirl of water you see when you open the drain on a tub or sink and was pulling that dust down the shaft. If Mack and Ward weren’t already in space, they were being extruded through the fissure on their way out.
I was opening the door to the escape pod when I saw Barbara running toward me. I wave her on and yelled at her to run faster. It was getting hard to breathe when she reached me. I pushed her into the pod, then jumped inside and slammed the door shut. The automatic atmosphere control came on and pumped fresh air into the cabin while I sat down at the console.
Going back to the moon would have been too risky. With any luck, the asteroid would stay together and just bleed all the atmosphere out of the ESE. LMEC wouldn’t be able to mine it anymore like it was, but they could split it along the fissure and then attach an ESE to each piece. If the fissure was too long, the asteroid would disintegrate and rain rocks down on the moon. I didn’t want to be in that if it happened.
It took a few seconds to program the space port in San Diego into the control, and I felt the ESE starting to shake just before the display said “Coordinates Accepted”. The hydrogen/oxygen engine automatically fired and blasted the pod free of the ESE. It wasn’t until then I had time to see what had happened to Barbara.
She was sitting in the seat beside me with her harness buckled correctly, and she looked scared.
“Are we going to be all right”, she asked.
“Yes. In about two days, we’ll land in San Diego.”
“What about Mack and Walt?”
“They didn’t make it.”
“I don’t know for sure. What I think happened is they thought I was being too cautious so they used more blasting charges than I said was safe. When they blew them, they blew a crack through the asteroid.”
“I guess it’s a good thing we got away then.”
“Yes. It was lucky I wasn’t down there with them or we’d all be dead.”
“I wouldn’t be dead. I’d be in this escape pod just like I am now. That’s why I started running toward it when I felt the ground shake.”
I looked at Barbara.
“I didn’t know you even knew the pods were there. Even if you got to one, you wouldn’t know how to enter the right coordinates.”
“Yes I would. After the first day, While you and Mack and Walt were working I read the books about the ESE and how to work it.”
“You think that was enough?”
“Sure I am. It’s not that hard. I found out where the escape pods were the first day, and the second, I learned how to make them take off and go where I wanted. I memorized the coordinates for where I grew up in Idaho. I was going to go back there.”
“Why Idaho. There’s nothing there.”
Barbara’s face was a frown mixed with fear.
“I read the little book they gave you about me this morning. I know what I am, and I know what will happen to me if they find me. I don’t want to die. I thought if I went to Idaho, I might be able to hide there. I know my memories aren’t really mine, but if they’re accurate, maybe I can find a place where they won’t think to look.”
That first night with Barbara, I’d though she wasn’t quite what Jack had said. Now I knew she wasn’t. Jack thought the only things in her mind were what LMEC had put there. They’d given her what they thought was a limited ability to learn. I didn’t know how her brain had rewired itself, but if she could figure out the operation of the ESE and the escape pods in three days just by reading about them, she was smarter than Jack and most of the engineers who worked for him.
She had also just told me she didn’t want to die. That meant she had a sense of self and that meant she was human according to the law. That only made things for her worse. LMEC would have to do what Jack had called “deactivate” her. If anyone ever found out they’d cloned a human, LMEC would cease to exist because everybody from the CEO down to the lab techs would be in prison.
There was no way I was going to let LMEC deactivate her. I smiled at Barbara.
“Do you still remember the coordinates for the place you picked in Idaho?”
LMEC tracked the escape pod all the way from the ESE to where I landed it in Idaho. It took them two hours after I landed to get a helicopter to the site. By then, I had Barbara safely hidden in a ravine a mile away with all the supplies from the shuttle. I was hesitant to leave her because I didn’t know how long it would take me to get back.
Barbara just grinned.
“They gave me memories of camping out here with my dad. I know what to do. Just hurry back.”
When I went back to the pod, I put a jumper across the overload sensor for the hydrogen/oxygen engine, fired it up and then ran like hell for the nearest rock. The pod traveled about a hundred yards and then exploded. A minute later, the pod was just a smoking ruin. I was standing a little way away and watching it burn when the helicopter landed. The guy in a black suit who got out asked if I was by myself. I just nodded.
Two hours later I was sitting in a conference room with several other men in black suits. The guy at the head of the table asked me what happened.
“Well, Sir, I can’t be positive because I couldn’t ask them, but I think the two miners used more hydrogen/oxygen charges than I told them to. There were several small fissures, but we’d been working our way around them. In another week, we’d have been back in solid rock, but I guess they thought they knew better. The blast shook the asteroid enough to have been about two hundred joules, maybe more.”
He asked if I knew what happened to them.
“Well, Sir, again, I wasn’t down there, but I’d imagine they’re now just little bits of stuff floating in space. Getting blown through a crack in the rock will do that.”
A guy on the right of me asked about Barbara.
“There was a woman assigned to your mining party. What happened to her.”
“Well, first of all, I wouldn’t call her a woman. A woman would have sense enough to stay in the habitat, and she’d understand what sex is all about. I don’t know what idiot decided to make her, but a Lucy is far better. The last time I saw her, she was in the mine. God knows why, but she asked Mack to show her how he set up for a blast. I didn’t see her come out before I got into the escape pod, so I figure she’s a bloody fog floating in space too. Too bad in some ways. She wasn’t much in bed and we dug out rock that was smarter, but she was pretty to look at.”
I answered a few more questions including why the pod suddenly changed course. I frowned.
“Apparently, the seals on the control console aren’t worth a shit. I was drinking some water and spilled it on the console. After that the pod changed directions and I couldn’t reset the coordinates. It came down in the ass end of nowhere. I was hoping you guys were tracking me. I’d never have made it out of there by myself.
“I don’t know why the damned thing caught fire right after I got out either. It did land pretty hard, so maybe something came loose. Maybe you should check out the engine safety systems too.”
They got done with me after an hour. The guy at the head of the table thanked me and said 196 Askadar was going to be split and mined as two separate asteroids. Since I hadn't finished my year on site, they’d get me on the next shuttle to the moon. I shook my head.
“Sir, once was enough for me. I think I was damned lucky to get off that fucking rock alive, and I never thought it was a good idea to tempt fate. My contract says I can quit at any time. Just pay me what I’m due, and I’ll be on my way. There has to be a job out there somewhere that’s a whole lot safer.”
Two days later, I stepped out of the used Jeep I’d bought and looked at the GPS unit in my hand, then started walking toward a big pine tree that marked the entrance to the ravine. Barbara was about a hundred feet from the tree, hunched over a fire and watching a fish roasting on a stick shoved in the ground. When she saw me, she jumped up and ran to meet me. She almost knocked me down when she put her arms around my neck.
“I was so worried they wouldn’t let you go. Now I’m so happy you’re here.”
“They didn’t let me go. I quit.”
“You’re not going back up there again?”
“Nope. I’m staying right here on Earth.”
“What will we do?”
“You said ‘we’. Does that mean you’re staying with me?”
“If you’ll let me. I think I love you.”
“When did you learn about love? I thought you couldn’t do that.”
“I’ve been finding out I can do a lot more things than your book said I could. I don’t know why, but I can, and one of the things I can do is think I love you.”
“Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. There’s not much of a market for an asteroid mining engineer here on Earth. What would you want to do?”
“I’d like to stay right here. I remember having a lot of good times with my father in the woods.”
“They aren’t really your memories, Barbara. LMEC put them in your mind.”
“I know, but they’re the only memories I have.”
Well, when I looked around at the scenery, it was a pretty great place. I’d gotten so used to gray rocks I’d forgotten how nice trees, water, and grass can be. It wouldn’t be a bad place to live.
When I went back to town, I took Barbara with me because she needed some different clothes. I cut the LMEC patches off her coveralls so she wouldn’t attract attention that way.
We stopped by the only shop in the small town that sold clothing. It was a farm supply store that seemed to have a little of everything, but all they had was jeans and cowboy shirts. Barbara picked out some she liked and also picked out a pair of hiking boots. When I paid the older guy at the register, he asked if I was new in town. I said yes. Then he asked me a question that ended up being the answer to my problems.
“You wouldn’t be interested in stayin’ in Badger Falls, would you?”
“Well, actually, I am. It looks like a great place to live. I just need a job and a place to live.”
“Your wife there like it too?”
“She’s the reason we’re thinking about staying. She was raised near here.”
“That so? Well, I’ll ask you the question I’ve asked every other man in town then. I been running this store since I got it from my Daddy back in ’41. I ain’t getting’ rich, but this here store’s the only place in two hundred miles to buy anything 'cept groceries so I do all right. Had me a car charger and hydrogen plant put in last year, so I got that covered too. I’m lookin’ to sell out and move me and my wife to Boise. Got us a son who lives there. He don’t want the place and nobody in town does either. You be interested? I’ll throw in my truck, ‘cause I won’t need it an’ you will.”
The price he named seemed low, but it would take everything I’d saved. I said I’d have to talk to Barbara.
Barbara was all for it even after I told her if we failed, we wouldn’t have anything. She just grinned.
“I remember working in a store like this before we moved to the moon. I know what needs to be done. We won’t fail.”
I went back and offered the man a little less, just so I’d have some cushion left. I still had to find us a place to live. The old man frowned.
“Well, I can sell the store for that, but I guess I’ll have to keep the house. Maybe I can rent it to somebody.”
“There’s a house that goes with the store?”
“Well, yeah. Once I move to Boise I sure as hell won’t need a house here.”
I signed the contract that day, and went to the local bank to arrange transfer of the money. Barbara and I spent the night in the only motel in town. After we ate dinner at the diner across from the store, we went back to our room. Once I’d locked the door, Barbara put her arms around my neck.
“I know most of my memories aren’t really mine, but I have one that is.”
“Oh, what’s that one.”
“The night in the ESE when you came to my room. I know that one is mine.”
“I remember that night too. It’s when I decided you weren’t what they told me you were.”
Barbara stroked my chest.
“Just so I don’t forget that night, could we do it again? I didn’t get to feel how it feels to have you undress me.”
Well, I have to say that while sex in the reduced gravity of the moon was really great, sex with Barbara on Earth was even better. We had to go slower, but that just made the ending better. When she eased back down on the bed, she held me close for a while, then kissed my ear lobe and whispered, “now I know I love you.”
I rolled over and put my arms around her.
“I love you too Barbara.”
“Would it be too much to ask you to show me how much you love me?”
Nobody from LMEC has ever contacted me in the ten years since I quit, so I think Barbara’s pretty safe. There was no way to prove she didn’t get sucked out the crack in the asteroid, and even if LMEC suspected, everybody in Badger Falls knows Barbara now. If she suddenly disappeared, they’d start asking questions and the Badger Falls police would get involved. LMEC wouldn’t want to risk any kind of investigation.
I think the genetic engineering guys at LMEC underestimated the human brain by a bunch. They ignored the cases in the past where a person with a pretty severe brain injury eventually was able to function almost normally. The doctors didn’t have anything to do with that. It was just the brain figuring out how to heal itself by re-wiring some connections. I suppose it’s kind of like how artificially intelligent machines can learn to repair themselves, except there’s nothing artificial about Barbara. She’s every bit as human as I am.
The only thing LMEC did right with Barbara was that libido thing, and I’m still making up my mind about that. It’s great, but I feel pretty tired some of the time. Barbara’s been checking out books at the little library in town and says I just need some vitamins. She ordered some for the store, and brought a box home. I think they’re doing some good. I just hope she doesn’t start taking them too.