We spent the next three days touring the habitats in Vesta and asking people what they thought of the present situation on their asteroid. Many told us that the Protectors had drastically reduced the crime rate, and some other immigrants from different asteroids stated that dealing with them was preferable to most of the governments they had previously lived under. We weren't accosted by anyone else, though how much was the Guilds keeping the criminal element under control and how much was the weapons we were now openly carrying I do not know. Still, I got the impression that many of the people we asked weren't telling us everything.
Eventually we pieced together the story of Vesta's controlled anarchy. After the revolution the inhabitants of Vesta, which had extensive mines and worker barracks but minimal supervision, decided to embrace the concept of anarchy, no rulers. The nutrient algae vending machines were hacked so that anyone could add their biometric data to the system and receive a daily allotment of calories from the machines, the fabricators were open to use by anyone who felt they needed something. If there was a shortage of fabricator materials or some of the life support systems began to malfunction or the algae went bad someone would fix the problem. If someone went crazy and started killing people they figured that an angry mob would drag him to the nearest airlock. Inevitably this turned out to not be the case. air scrubbers crapped out leaving entire sectors unlivable at a rate that overwhelmed the few people who had the initiative to fix them, infected algae was ignored until the food became toxic, and psychopaths found ways to murder people with no witnesses to form mobs. The tipping point came, ironically enough, when some people who were concerned about the degradation of the habitat organized and began working to fix the various problems full time. This group, known as the Repairman's Guild, initially suffered from a lack of manpower to resolve all the broken pieces of the habitat, until they came up with the idea of offering their members extra food rations. At first this extra food came from algae trays and hydroponics farms maintained by the Guild itself and voluntary donations from grateful civilians. But as time passed they needed more and more workers, and many Guilders assigned to collecting donations started to use physical force to intimidate people into giving up their food. This led to many people becoming malnourished, and some resorted to stealing food from others, during this time the Protector's Guild formed, and refused to aid anyone who didn't "donate" to them, and even more people starved as a result of their taking of yet more of the food. Some people tried to avoid giving away their rations by offering resources they had mined or items they had fabricated or services that they could provide, after some initial incidents the Guilds decided that they would accept payments other than food rations which convinced many people to find things that they could produce. Eventually so many people were producing products and performing services that they formed Guilds of their own and began exchanging products or services for those produced by others besides the Repairmans and Protectors. At some point people started giving written promises of a future good or service instead, "this file is redeemable for one kilogram of carbon from Phil" and such. And then people began to trade these promises around, unfortunately they were easy to copy and there were disputes arising from who had the valid file. One group noticed this phenomenon and noticed that many other asteroids used qcoins that were nigh-impossible to falsify, they obtained a set of quantum servers and formed a Guild that began trading promise files for freshly mined qcoins. The issue of starvation was largely solved, many people even started growing plants imported from earth or raised small animals for sale increasing the general food supply. Though the algae vending machines remained open for those who could not afford other foodstuffs. And despite all this theft remained a bit of a problem, the focus had just shifted from algae rations to other products that they couldn't afford but still desired. Thus the Protector's Guild expanded until their organization became unwieldy and was divided into several smaller Guilds.
Still, as great as the system that had emerged spontaneously from the chaos was, there were still some problems evidently.
"What do you mean by 'we can't buy from you'?" Denal demanded from the representative of the Marquez habitat's industrial fabrication guild. The red panda was practically in his face leaning across the desk that way.
"It's guild rules, we can only accept raw materials gathered by one of the miners or chemists guilds." The mixed breed dog parahuman replied nonplussed by Denal's particular way of asking him questions.
After deciding that Vesta was, in fact, safer than most of the other asteroids in the immediate area we bought a long-term coverage contract from the Marquez Guild and set out to find uncommon minerals in the surrounding rocks. After a week out in the black we came back with a load of tungsten, a very dense and strong metal that was used in a lot of heavy duty construction work. Normally we could get a decent price for it but now we were finding it a bit difficult to offload on the locals.
"And just why can't you accept ores from independent miners?" Denal propped his drooping upper body over the desk using his arms as he asked further questions that I was sure would not get us closer to making money from this particular venture.
The dog stuck behind the desk paused for a few seconds as if he was having difficulty thinking of a good reason for the rule. "Well. For one thing we don't maintain the equipment needed to determine the purity or even identity of the product. The miners guilds do."
Okay, now I was feeling a little offended. "I analyzed that ore." I threw out before the bureaucrat in front of us. "It is 90% pure tungsten I guarantee it."
He turned slightly to face me. "And what is your guarantee worth? Madam, err, sir, err?"
I hate it when people don't recognize that I have no gender. "I'm pretty sure the pronoun is "zir", I'm neuter. And the name is Argentum, like the metal."
"Yes, well, Argentum is it? How do I know that your assessment is accurate without certification from a guild? For all I know you're lying outright about the contents of those containers that you and your colleagues want to sell me."
I grabbed a hold of my head in my left hand in started rubbing my forehead in exasperation. "At least the Ceres Directorate had their own mineral composition team." I mumbled to myself at what I was sure were barely audible levels in disbelief.
Denal pushed himself up off the desk and started for the door. "So what, we should try selling to the miners guild instead?"
"No, I think you misunderstood me." The fabricator's rep told us as we went out. "The guild as a whole doesn't buy materials, they only license and certify. You have to join the miners guild."
As we left the office me and Denal noticed a large animated advertisement on the side of a building. It showed a view of the city around us, but the buildings were decayed, it seemed like they hadn't been maintained for decades. It seemed deserted. A caption stated: VESTA, 2300 A.D. Then a figure in a pressure suit was seen walking down an alleyway, his species was indeterminable but appeared primate in origin. He walked into a house, the interior was covered with dust that he left a shuffling trail through. Entering the bedroom one noticed a bluish metal parahuman skeleton, with the distinctive skull of a feline, lying on the bed. The figure picked up a wristpad the skeleton was wearing, dislodging the remains of the owner's hand and sending the bones clattering to the floor. Then the figure flipped his visor upwards to examine his prize, revealing the furless face of a human being. Words appeared at the bottom of the display and began to move slowly upwards. EVERY YEAR HUNDREDS OF PARAHUMANS DIE FROM VIOLENCE, EXPOSURE TO HARSH ENVIRONMENTS, AND DISEASE. AND UNLIKE MOST SPECIES WE CANNOT REPLACE THOSE LOSSES WITHOUT TECHNOLOGICAL ASSISTANCE AND CONSCIOUS EFFORT. OUR PEOPLE ARE HEADED FOR EXTINCTION. Then the scene began to shift, subtly at first and then becoming more and more clear, dust vanished, broken shelving was restored, burnt out lights came back on. BUT WE AT THE SOCIETY FOR THE PRESERVATION OF PARAHUMAN SPECIES BELIEVE WE CAN REVERSE THAT TREND. Finally the human picking over the bones of long-dead parahumans disappeared and the skeleton was replaced by a sickly looking, but alive, panther. Then the door opened and another panther who could have been a copy of the one in the bed, just healthier, wait not healthier just much younger, came through carrying a tray of foodstuffs. The old cat smiled as he saw his clone, for surely that was what the other feline was, placed the tray on a cabinet next to the bed and pulled up a chair. Then the scene shifted to a factory setting, a row of cylindrical glass tanks with robotic arms within laying flesh and sinew over metallic bones inside the tanks. It panned over to a tank with a nearly complete male red fox hanging suspended in the tank while a team of technicians and another male fox, this one with grey hairs spotting his fur, stood nearby. OUR CLONES ARE NOT MERE LUXURIES, THEY ENSURE A FUTURE FOR ALL OF PARAHUMANITY.
"Tugs at the heartstrings doesn't it." I commented on the scene starting to repeat before me. Denal nodded his agreement.
"Hey, didn't that Olga Wolf babe say that she was a clone?" I thought back to our first day in Vesta, she had said she was a clone, of the guildmistress of Guild Wolf no less. And there was something else she'd said.
"She claimed that something called the 'SPPS' gave discounts on clones to Guild leaders." I recalled. "Think this is the SPPS?"
Denal shrugged, "seems likely." Then he paused, as if in contemplation of something. "Hey, maybe we should all get clones. We can be like one of those human families, me and Cole can be the dads, Aniya can be the mom, but what would that make you?"
I snorted derisively. "Save it until we have enough money to actually buy clones, I doubt they would charge a bunch of prospectors fresh from Ceres anything less than full price. And last I checked clones were expensive."
"Right, right, let's go find a miners guild then shall we?" Denal held up his wristpad to look up the local listings for the various guilds. Instantly I was reminded of the video, and the titanium alloy bones falling away from the prying hands of a future human looter.
Denal pulled up a map to the dense metal miners guild main office and we walked down there in five minutes. On the way we called up Aniya and Cole and told them to meet us there. Cole was already perched on a street light outside the building by the time we arrived but Aniya took an extra three minutes to trot up. Once everyone had shown up we explained to the others the guild rules that kept us from selling our ores and how it seemed that the only way around them was to join a guild, like the one we were standing outside.
"Sounds like a stupid rule." Cole commented from atop his perch above the walkway.
"He said it was because they didn't have any analysis equipment." I explained. "Which makes some sense as a cost cutting measure but he also said that he didn't trust my own assessment. Why should being in a guild make me any better at telling the difference between tungsten and lead?"
"I don't know, why don't we ask them?" Aniya motioned towards the door to suggest that we go in. I figured we might as well see what they had to offer and pressed the intercom button by the door.
There was a buzz and the speaker clicked on. "Hello?"
I answered, "is this the dense metals mining guild?"
"Yes, do you have an appointment?"
I hadn't thought of that. "No, were we supposed to make one?"
"It depends on what you are after."
"We would like to join."
There was a brief pause, then the speaker crackled again with a response. "Well then, I've got the application forms here. I can show you through the process." The doors opened and we entered Inside was a small lobby area with some chairs by one wall, and a massive tank of water covering the opposite wall. Inside the tank was a computer terminal of some sort, and a giant octopus. The cephalopod splayed out several tentacles, changed color multiple times, and let loose a couple jets of water, a speaker on the side of the tank came to life. "So, why do you want to join the guild."
I moved over to the side of the tank glass that was closest to the mollusk's large eye. "We're a group of prospectors who just moved here from Ceres. We attempted to sell some tungsten but the buyer stated that he couldn't take it because we weren't certified by a guild."
"Naturally. Freelancers are too untrustworthy, how can one be sure that their wares are truly saleable." A tablet slid out of a slot on the wall opposite of him. "Each of you fill out your personal information, there's a separate file for everyone on that tablet."
Aniya picked up the tablet and filled in her information before handing it to me. It was rather straightforward, Name: Argentum, Date of birth: 2069, Gender: neuter, e-mail address, communicator code, Special Skills: I selected both chemical analysis and emergency medic. For employment history I listed first my work for the corporation that had commissioned my creation, then the Ceres Directorate before the layoffs, and finally my current employment as a freelance prospector. I chose not to fill in any of the optional references, given our status as fugitives from another asteroid. I then passed the tablet to Cole who filled it out and then passed it to Denal who fitted the device back in its slot.
"All right then. We will need to assess your abilities before accepting your application to join the guild. Tomorrow a representative of the guild will join you on one of your expeditions to observe your techniques and verify your claims." The octopus probably had a script written in his translator specifically for this situation. "Zir Argentum, I am scheduling an examination of your analysis skills in three days time."
Hold on a second there. "But it takes at least two days to reach any asteroids that haven't already been claimed. I'd still be out in space at the time of the exam you have scheduled."
"Chemical analysts do not accompany miners to the dig sites. Guild rules to keep them safe from unnecessary risks. There aren't too many parahumans who know how to identify the minerals we extract properly."
I did not understand. "So miners don't know if they have a load of lanthanides or a chunk of carbon until they get all the way back to port? What if they go broke because they wasted time hauling worthless material when they could have been looking for something more valuable?"
The guild clerk released a bit of ink into the waters of his tank at that statement, I suppose I must have surprised him a bit. "The guild will subsidize your losses, otherwise your dues will comprise 10% of your total profits. The habitat needs carbon too you know."
"Come on," Aniya grabbed my shoulder in a gesture of reassurance. "We still have enough money left over from the last sale to keep us afloat a little bit longer." She was right, the 500,000 qcoins we still retained would be enough to finance another expedition, store the tungsten from the last haul in one of the portside warehouses, and pay for our protection plan for another couple of weeks.
"All right then." I said with a bit of reluctance. And we left, headed for an increasingly uncertain future.