By Carol Fichtelman
I’m standing in my office. It’s 1300 GMT. Beginning of second shift. I glance out the window, a transparent polymer coated with a clear sheen of radiation-inhibiting varnish and notice something strange. As the red dwarf sun begins dipping below the horizon, I see globules of floating opalescence as if I’m peering at stained bacteria flagellating under a microscope.
Probably caused by the liquid resin used in the 3-D printing machine to make the window. Or perhaps the result of the radiation-blocking lacquer. Or maybe I’m just losing my eyesight.
Then the Company’d finally be forced to send me home, wouldn’t they? What good is a blind biogeochemical engineer on this dump of a mining asteroid anyway? It’s bad enough I lost my arms, but instead of shipping me home for R&R—recuperation and rehab—the Company stripped me of my dignity, my status, and reassigned me from Chief Mining Engineer to the Adjudicator’s Office. I didn’t get an advanced degree just to so some job any administrative hack could handle!
Demoted and humiliated, all because of the accident: Second Shift, Red Krewe.
Before totally submerging myself into that tunnel of a nightmare, I sit at my desk to begin my workday when the door to my office pops open and Ping pokes in her head. “They’re here, Boss. The mediation rescheduled from last week.” She places a piece of paper—paper!—on my desk. “Sorry, old tech today.”
“Really?” I say, scowling as I peruse her handwritten scrawl.
“Really,” she retorts and proceeds to state the obvious, “Whole system’s down again. In case you were wondering. Satellite connection on the fritz, no doubt. Guess you shoulda read the personnel file when you had the chance. Heh, Boss?”
I ignore the jab. Guess I’m a softy. “So did you tell the Tech Department?” Her smirking lips and arms-on-hips body language relay her reply. “Okay,” I concede, “just make sure Swenson gets the gig. Not one of those smug self-satisfied cybergeeks. I want the best techie.”
She gives me a look as if I’m the biggest knucklehead in the universe. “Are you sure?” she says. “Swenson?”
I mumble something into my beard about it being nothing and tell her to show in the two workers waiting outside my door marked Adjudicator. As they are filing in, I glance at Ping’s scribblings and barely make out the names of the workers: Komrovskaya and Fields; Third Shift, Green Krewe. The rest is gibberish.
They sit. On chairs made by the 3-D printer. Opaque white polymer just like my desk. Maybe my new arms’ll be made out of the same stuff as well. That is, once the Company ships the applicable software to the MedClinic. For some reason I cannot fathom, neither MC nor myself are allowed to upload the program. Then again, the system’s always down. What can you do? Life’s one big waiting game, I guess.
It’s a good thing I insisted our mining tools and equipment be dual operational. Computer chips, yes. Yet, also solar-powered batteries to operate machinery when the system fails. Plenty of old tech hand tools, too: picks, shovels. Otherwise, nothing would get done, I muse, perusing Ping’s squiggles, thinking I can glean more info. Missing my old life…
I sigh. What’s the point? It’s over. So I shift my focus on the two before me.
The female is the first I notice. Quirky looking. Shaved head. Steely gray eyes. Pale skin with a pinkish tinge. Ruby red lips. She’s wearing olive drab coveralls like her male colleague. Means they’re on the same krewe. Probably why their shift supervisor recommended mediation. Some squabble or such I must settle. As for the male, he looks like all the other blokes: big, burly men with beefy faces. Faces ranging in color from black and brown to yellow and red. This one, though, sports skin a shade lighter than a paper bag. Café au lait, Nana would say and love him.
“So,” I say, leaning back in my chair, bored already, “what’s going on with you two?”
“She ain’t no lady,” grouses the guy, scowling, shifting in his seat.
I glance once more at the paper. Fields. Gustav Fields. “So, Comrade Fields, is that why you two are not getting along? Because,” again I scan the blurb for her name, “because Annika Komrovskaya is not a lady? Please explain.”
“Well, she calls me a cochon,” he says, nervously blinking, looking at the floor.
“A cochon?” I repeat.
“Yeah, a pig,” he says and shifts his gaze to the Periodic Table of Elements hanging on the wall.
“I know what cochon means,” I remark with abruptness.
The female snickers. He glares at her as though threatening to silence her.
“And she’s always laughing at me,” he pouts like a little boy denied dessert. “Like that!”
“She laughs at you,” I repeat, pausing for a second before asking, “At work? Off-hours? When exactly?”
“All the time, she does, Comrade Adjudicator. It hurts my feelings.”
“Oh, it hurts your feelings,” I say, growing tired of this goon and this game called mediation. “Listen, Comrade Fields, you must be specific. I require details, not feelings. When, where, what and how. Be specific!”
So he launches into his litany of grievances. At one point, I glance over at Komrovskaya. Her face is as impassive as rock, yet those steely gray eyes stare back at me, searching. For what? If I feel sympathy for him? Understanding for her? Is she egging him on? Finally, it’s her turn.
“I have nothing to say,” she replies to my query.
“This is on the record, you are aware. Although, as you heard, the system is down, my wristbit is recording this session,” I inform then and show them the tiny omnipresent mechanism strapped around my left stump.
“Okay,” she nods, a glimmer of a smile playing on her pinkish-red lips. “I understand.”
“And you have nothing to say regarding your behavior?”
“No justifications, reasons, excuses?”
Leaning forward, she slams her hand with a loud bang on my desk, making the guy jump. “No, Comrade Adjudicator, I have nothing to say. Nothing means nothing. I have a right to remain silent, yes?”
I nod. Then recalling I’m recording this session, I say aloud, “Yes, Comrade Komrovskaya, you have a right to remain silent and it will not be held against you. Yet, I warn you, I will investigate this matter. Do you both understand?”
They chime in their assent and I declare, “This session is adjourned until further notice.”
I watch them shuffle away. Separately. And wonder what Annika Komrovskaya will be doing before her shift starts.
I’m at the Rouge Soleil. It’s 530 GMT. The place is deserted. No one except me, the barkeep and the cook. Everyone else is either at work, asleep in bed, or stumbling back to their bunks after their shift in the mines. I’m sipping my coffee from a straw, eating my beignets by stabbing them with a device I crafted that fits over my stump like a pirate’s sharpened peg-leg.
Slowly savoring the pillowy, sugary mounds of fried doughy goodness, Javert pours me more java and informs me the system’s still down.
“Naturally,” I say. “What else is new?’
Without even asking, he sits at my table, snatches one of my beignets and starts munching. “Hey, these aren’t bad. Hear any news about the accident investigation?”
“Still waiting. You by chance hear anything?” I say, a bit on the sarcastic side. I’m tired of people asking.
Javert chuckles. “No, mon ami. I have not. But if I do, you will be the last one to know,” he says as he stands up and saunters away.
I almost yell something nasty at his back, but third-shifters are wandering in, ready to party after a hard day’s night before tumbling into bed. Best not to make a scene; I still have to set a good example. Then I notice their faces, attire. Dirty, dusty. Disgusted, my dander is up and I march over to their table. “Who’s your shift supervisor?” I demand.
“What’s it to ya?” one of them grouses.
I ignore the robotnik and address the table. “You know the rules. Shower and clothing change after shift. Before you leave, not after. Now get back and do it. Pronto.”
“Who died and made you chief?” says the biggest and burliest of the lot. He stands and stares me straight in the face. Behind the grime, his skin is a yellowish hue with olive tones, a bit darker than a paper bag. Hair is black and straight. “You ain’t my boss, mate. Now, amscray.” He pulls back his right arm, ready to punch me in the jaw.
“Steady there, Tak,” I hear one of the other robotniki say. “He’s the Chief Mining Engineer. Or was. Come on, let’s go. We don’t want any trouble.”
Tak gives me a thorough up-and-down look. “Chief Mining Engineer? Are you kidding me? Not with those stumps he ain’t, Anya,” he laughs. “Well, come on knuckleheads, let’s head back and take those showers before his Royal Highness rats on us…”
Anya? It’s Annika Komrovskaya? She and this wild bunch are garbed in olive drab.
Must be her. Didn’t notice if one of the “knuckleheads” was Gustav Fields, but I doubt he’s there, I think. As they shuffle away together, I notice Tak’s arm encircling Anya’s waist and realize what I really miss…
Grumbling under my breath, I stalk out of the Rouge Soleil and head for my office, wondering if the system is going to be working. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, it’s up and running. So I log into my workstation using an audible, deciding to check the status of the accident investigation when in pops Ping.
“Swenson was here. You just missed your sweetheart, Boss.”
“Swenson is not my sweetheart,” I assert and my machine immediately announces, “There are five employees with the surname of Swenson. There is…” It begins listing them and I command it to stop and switch to reading response mode.
Ping chuckles. “Too bad you have to use an audible program. Personally, I hate them. Too noisy and nosy.”
I hold up my stumps and say, “Well, if you grow me a pair, you won’t have to hear me working. And no, I’m not using earbuds. Research shows sound pumped directly into the inner ear causes hearing loss.”
“My, we’re grouchy. Not used to working first shift, huh? Want some coffee?”
“No. Go away.” However, she lingers by the doorway, waiting. Picturing Nana glowering at my poor manners, I finally say, “No thank you, Ping,” and she ambles away, a big smile plastered across her tan face.
Once she’s out of earshot, I query again about the accident investigation. Status Pending, I read. It’s been over six months. No, nine months. This baby need to be born already. Guess I’ll have to induce labor and file my own grievance with the VP of Standards and Compliance. So I call up the SC form and start filling it out.
Near the end, I decide I might as well remind them of the promise they made. The one about prosthetics, up-to-date robotics, that they’ll ship in the next supply drone, or barring that, a chip for the 3-D printer to allow MedClinic to do the job onsite. At the end of the form, I read: What outcome(s) do you seek? Be specific.
Really? I try not to laugh. “My life back,” I say, then command, “Submit form.”
I’m at the Rouge Soleil. It’s 1800 GMT. First-shifters are asleep. Second-shifters on the job.
Third-shifters trickle in and out: chowing down, playing darts, catching up on news from home before reporting to work at 2100 GMT. I’m alone. Sipping whiskey through a straw. Slowly getting drunk.
Somebody sits down at my table uninvited and says, “So, Comrade Adjudicator, feeling sorry for yourself?” Staring into my drink, I tell them to buzz off, but they laugh. “You can’t get rid of me that easily. It’s been two months since our mediation session. Report still pending, hey?”
Squinting, I try and focus on my interrogator. Grey eyes. Shaved head. Quirky smile. Seems familiar. “Oh, it’s you,” I mumble into my beard. “Where’s your friend?”
“Do you mean Gus-Gus or Tak?”
“Your krewe member who threatened me. Hayao Takahata,” I say, recalling his name from the personnel files I called up when I had the chance.
Annika Komrovskaya laughs, a deep throaty sound. It’s hypnotic. “Oh, him. Tak’s with his new comrade canoodling before shift starts. As for Gus-Gus, Gustav Fields as he’s formally known, he transferred back to Second Shift, Red Krewe. Company should have informed you.” When I say nothing, she adds, “Yeah, they can be pretty lackadaisical when it comes to record-keeping…”
Second Shift? Red Krewe? That’s where my accident occurred. Is it possible…?
She laughs again, seeing me lift my head and gaze into those steely grays, looking for confirmation. “Oh, so now you know. Did Kyla Swenson tell you she’d been his old lady? Not talking outta school, you know. Everyone knew. Except you, it seems.”
“Except me,” I mutter, no longer denying it. “And it’s Kira. Kira Swenson.”
“Well, you had your chance with Gus-Gus and blew it. He’s back at his old job and there’s nothing you can do.”
“Why’s that?” I ask, suddenly sober and alert.
Komrovskaya pushes my drink away and motions Javert for some joe. As we’re waiting for our café, she tells me how Gustav Fields had bragged about getting even with the guy who was snogging his old lady, had the Company transfer him to Third Shift, Green Krewe, so he could hide out until everything blew over. Once he felt safe—I failed to follow-up or file any findings on the mediation and the Company appeared to be sitting on the accident investigation—he felt safe enough to transfer back to his old job: Second Shift, Red Krewe.
The coffee finally arrives. Along with a heaping plate of pillowy, doughy, sugary beignets. Javert salutes us and says, “Enjoy, comrades,” then saunters away.
I stare at the plate.
“Problem?” says Komrovskaya, her mouth full of pastry. I hold up my stumps. “Oh, I see; you forgot your device. Here you go, Comrade.” She picks up a beignet and slides it into my watering mouth.
I say nothing. It’s not polite to talk with your mouthful, I hear Nana admonish. But I do smile. And Komrovskaya smiles back. I’m glad she likes her coffee strong and black. Just like me…
Member: Missouri Writers Guild, Broad Universe,
Writers-Editors Network, Northern Colorado Writers