Pieter Robbins walked slowly across the icy grey plain. Behind him, a cloud of disturbed dust and ice particles hung suspended in the aether, falling almost imperceptibly back toward the surface of Neried. The cloud formed an insubstantial snake-like trail back toward the mining base's lifesystem, spreading and thinning perhaps a hundred yards from the airlock door.
Within and beyond the airlock, slightly metallic-tasting air drifted unused, awaiting his return. No-one else breathed the lifesystem's air -- none had since the day he'd arrived, four-and-a-half years before, to relieve his predecessor. The walls were metal, blank and austere for the most part, sporadically decorated with faded posters and torn notices, only a few of which weren't spurious.
Here and there, affixed by magnets to tables, desks and walls, sheets of paper rustled in the breeze from the air vents. In the rest room, a loose sheet of toilet paper, wafting near the ceiling, seemed more-or-less content to stay there. In the puny force of Neried's gravity, it would take most of a day to fall, and the nigh-imperceptible draft from the floor vent held it aloft.
When Pieter walked these corridors in velcro slippers, the rip, rip, rip sound of his footsteps echoed hollowly off the walls and ceiling, mocking his solitude. But now the only sound -- were there someone there to hear it -- was the soft whirring hum of automated electronics at rest, and the occasional rustling sigh of its mechanical breath.
A listener standing beside Pieter now, as he walked across the Nerien tundra, would hear still less: perhaps a ghost of a Thump-Thump-Thump, transmitted through the soft and dusty ground by his footsteps. Pieter's suit massed 863 pounds -- and he'd paid dear to have each and every ounce of it transported here with him -- but on Neried, it weighed less than five, empty or full.
The suit was a thing of beauty: The 99000 series industrial chassis from Saab-Scania of Sweden, with state-of-the-art Wellington TDI mercury-based balance control systems, power-assisted joints, gravity-compensation systems allowing normal movement in anything from .0025 to 4.75 Gees, and Gerit-Quealy 6400 precision motion micro-translators allowing the wearer to spot-weld on a microchip as if it were an industrial cross-beam. The power plant was a Grenier 675 furnace with the GB2D stepdown system from L'Officier Space Gear of Quebec. Control feedback systems from British Leyland -- who also made all the safety equipment except the Spinne autosealant rover from Bavarische Motores Werken -- fed into the Texas Instruments 99/4000 computer system, which automaticaly translated the operator's motions and gestures into commands to the suit systems, and sent data and camera views to the twenty Sanyo 382 LCD moniter screens bordering the helmet's visor from above and below.
It was his pride and joy, every system, every interface, every motor, circuit, sensor and joint, a work of art painstakingly designed by the finest craftsmen in the solar system. He'd maintained it lovingly, and at considerable expense, for as long as he'd owned it, almost ten years, installing KoriCo Nova floodlights, the new NavStar Position-Direction finder, and the Sharp 266/9AV Audio-Video Laserdeck.
Pieter walked steadily ahead, the suit's power-driven joints resisting his every move, fooling his muscles into believing that Point-Five per cent Gee was normal earth gravity. The motors whirred and buzzed in his ears, and his breathing echoed harshly: the uncanny silence with which he walked across the face of Neried was a product not of fine engineering, but of vacuum.
There was no real reason for him to be out there, no real job that needed to be done. But there was make-work, which was more than could be said for the station.
The problem with setting up robot mining stations was simple: Any automated operation needed automatic repair and control systems to correct the damage time would certainly do the installation. No matter how hard one tried, though, one couldn't anticipate every contingency, couldn't pre-program for every possible way things could go wrong. In order for a mining station to be self-sufficient, an adaptable, self-programming computer was required, to troubleshoot the unanticipated contingency. Only one such device existed: a human being.
The economics of that answer were tricky, though. In the asteroid belt, and among the moons of the outer planets, lifesystems were expensive, and shipping a live human body was hideously moreso. Again, there was an answer, this one the result of a mathmatical formula: One human being, alone, in a supervisory repair and troubleshooting capacity, stationed at each remote base for anywhere from three to seven