The Workforce Drive
by Scott D. Coon
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4
“He hasn’t been cleared for discharge!”
Frank’s eyes popped open to a nurse in McKenna-blue scrubs. She was shaking her finger at a man and a woman standing at the foot of his bed in matching black business suits and McKenna-blue ties. He’d been expecting someone from the company to come and ask him questions but, over his three days here, his only visitor had been Mike.
In the explosion, Frank had suffered bruising and fractures to his arms, legs, and ribs. Today would be the first day that he wouldn’t have to get strapped into the bone-grower machine. He still ached, but he could stand and walk again.
“See, he’s awake,” said the black-suited man. He projected his holographic credentials above his wrist watch. “I am McKenna Mining Incorporated Deputy Security Agent Coreman. You are Control Engineer IV Frank Henry Porter, M-06-18-01-14-11-P, yes?” Frank’s photo replaced Coreman’s credentials.
“Excellent,” said Coreman. Gesturing to the black-suited woman shielding herself behind tightly folded arms, he added, “This is Deputy Security Agent Feliz.”
“You don’t have to go with them, sir,” the nurse told Frank.
Frank sat up and asked, “What’s going on?”
Coreman turned off his watch display and said, “We were instructed to bring you to Human Resources.”
The color vanished from Frank’s face as the image of those red boxes flashed in his mind. He’d known something was wrong; even if the Tree was green, even if the flash of red boxes was more than just an imagined memory, it didn’t matter because Frank’s feet knew. He should’ve let Reg shut it down. But he was greedy, and it killed his friend. Frank needed to answer for that.
“Let me get my clothes.”
* * *
In jeans and a white t-shirt, Frank followed the agents from the medical modules of Service Level Five, through the dental and barber sections, and to the elevators that would take them down this vertically oriented space station to Corporate Level Four, a level devoted entirely to Human Resources.
The elevator’s flat-screen filled the air with mindless entertainment news from a morning talk show on Hestia while Frank stared at the elevator floor. If he dared to close his eyes, he would see his mining rig blown open and his friend, dead. It was all his fault for ignoring the one sensor he should never have ignored, himself. But still...
“The Tree was green,” muttered Frank.
“What was that?” asked Agent Coreman.
“The laser assembly was white-hot but the Tree was green,” said Frank, his eyes drilled into the floor. “But then there was this blink in the readings where... I don’t know, maybe I saw something, but it was only a half-second and then it was all green again. You guys must meet a lot of miners; you ever heard of anything like that?”
The agents glanced at each other but didn’t answer him. Frank figured they didn’t want to get involved in anything that wasn’t their job. But HR would listen. They had to.
The elevator opened to a silent, blue corridor. The standard workday had yet to begin. The agents walked him down the main hallway, deep into the HR modules. With each step, Frank felt the floor getting farther and farther away and the blink mattering less and less, until it felt like just an excuse.
They reached the end. Coreman pressed the buzzer on the door. A pleasant HR lady came out and smiled. Coreman nodded to Frank and, with her datapad, the HR lady scanned Frank’s retina. As she skimmed Frank’s file, now displayed on her little screen, her pleasant expression calcified.
“Oh,” she said. “Follow me.”
* * *
Agent Feliz stared at the closed door into HR’s bureaucratic maze. She was still out here, in the light blue hallway, but her heart had gone in there with Control Engineer IV Frank Porter, along with her stomach. This was happening a lot now, too much to pretend that it wasn’t. As she stared, she unconsciously touched the wedding ring hanging around her neck, a ring that had originally belonged to her great-grandmother
“Why are we playing this game?” she asked.
“What was that?” said Coreman. He finished updating Porter’s data in the holographic projection over his left wrist and then turned off his watch-sized computer.
“Why didn’t we just take him to detention? You know we’ll get the call.”
“Procedure,” said Coreman. He turned sharply and marched toward the elevators.
“Bull,” said Feliz as she followed.
“Whether or not he needs to be taken to detention will depend upon his own behavior,” said Coreman, his pace unwavering.
Feliz trotted to keep up. “A load of crap,” she said. “When was the last time someone got fired and got on a shuttle home? When was the last shuttle home?”
They reached the elevators. Coreman touched the call icon and said, “We are home.”
Coreman fixed his eyes on the digits above the elevators. Feliz had once asked about this habit of his and had received a mini-dissertation about how monitoring each car allowed Coreman to position himself efficiently for passengers to exit and for himself to enter in a perfect ballet of space-station ergonomics — even if only Coreman knew that it was happening. Feliz found it amusing at first but, over time, it had become inexplicably unsettling.
Feliz looked away and unconsciously pressed her great-grandmother’s wedding ring against her chest. The feel of it ignited thoughts of another Control Engineer IV, the one they took to HR one morning last week.
Later that day, that Engineer was unlawfully present in the residential levels. It used to take months before they’d lock someone out, then weeks, then days — then Feliz had to watch this grown man go from screaming to weeping and back again as he pleaded to enter the apartment that had been his only hours before. “My dad’s flag is in there! The one that draped his casket!”
They arrested him for trespassing. Immediately afterwards, Feliz bought a necklace, put her great-grandmother’s ring on it, and promised the ghosts of the three generations of Feliz women who’d come before her that she would never leave their family’s heirloom behind. Now, wherever Feliz went, the ring went with her.
Still touching it, she grimaced at her partner and said, “Unemployment is up, crime is up. Events... What’s happening out here, Coreman?”
“What is happening is that we are finally getting Stone River into proper order. Anyone not on board with that can get out.”
Feliz clenched her fist around the ring. “Can they really?”
Coreman pulled his eyes away from his numbers to glare at her. “Stone River supplies civilization with the raw materials that are building humanity’s future,” he said as his slender torso swelled over Feliz like a cobra’s hood. “It is too important to be left to lazy people and ungrateful people. Whiny workers don’t matter. Inept executives don’t matter. Even the companies themselves do not matter. I’d change companies in a heartbeat if I needed to. Stone River is what matters, and we are here to keep it from spinning out of control.”
The elevator arrived. Coreman got on, but Feliz remained, grimacing at the floor in the corridor. What had Stone River become? What had she become?
Coreman took a short, sharp breath and asked, “Are you getting on board or not?”
Feliz looked up, her head still swimming through questions. With hesitation, she got on.
* * *
“And responsible for the death of Reginald Marley Schwartz...”
Surrounded by the buzz of the business day, Frank stood in the central corridor of the HR Level, trying not to vomit. But those words kept echoing through his head. It wasn’t the only reason he was fired — they’d listed every little nothing that had ever made it into his file — but it was the only reason that mattered.
A muffled voice crawled into Frank’s ear, droning, “My scans indicate that you are no longer authorized to be in this area.”
Frank looked up. His own dark reflection stared back at him from the tinted glass faceplate of a McKenna Security Officer in full body armor. The muted black metal of his uniform seemed to swallow the light blue background of the hallway, dimming all around it.
Down the long corridor, every officer wore the same. Normally, security grunts wore white shirts with McKenna-blue ties and corporate mandated smiles. But no part of the human beings inside these uniforms could escape the opaque enclosures.
This gear was new. Seeing this many guards on a Corporate Level was also new. And every one of them was armed with a stun baton and a pistol. For some reason, Frank felt itchy.
The guard started again: “My scans indicate...”
“Yeah...uh,” Frank interrupted him, “I’m not authorized to be here. I guess that’s true now. I’ll move along, sir. I don’t want to get in the way of... uh... an exercise?”
The faceless visor offered no answer. As Frank gradually left, the hidden eyes seemed to follow him to the elevator, as did every faceplate that he passed. Frank boarded and the doors closed on a dozen dark visors all pointed his way.
Frank rose through the station, clutching his spinning guts. I killed Reg. The remorseful mantra drowned out the meaningless word-noise emanating from the elevator’s flat-screen. I killed Reg. Frank couldn’t turn it off and part of him didn’t want to. He deserved it. He deserved to be fired... and more.
When he got to Residential Level Seven, another darkly armored guard stood by the elevators; the unique sighting pulled Frank out of his thoughts, but only for a moment. He trudged on to his apartment, opened it with his thumbprint, and sat in his silent living room.
Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Reg’s body floating away. When he opened them, he saw only the empty path before him. For the first time in his life, Frank had no job, no purpose, not even a plan. The company would make him leave this apartment at some point, so he didn’t really have a home. And he couldn’t imagine looking Joey or Mike in the eye ever again — not after what he did — so he didn’t really have any friends. Why was he staying even a moment longer?
“Good question,” Frank told himself. Then he dug out an old backpack and stuffed it full of clothes. “If McKenna has more questions for me,” he muttered, “they can ask them on Hestia.”
Minutes later he was in the ticket line under the vast blue dome at the top of the space station. Frank was not going to miss that blue or the endless elevator rides. But he would miss just about everything else, especially the sky, especially from inside an EXO-V. He’d probably never get to see anything like it again. Instead, he’d see the sky that Reg loved but would never get to see again. Frank dropped his face into his hands.
The guy behind him had to shove him forward before Frank stepped up to the ticketing agent housed within an armored cube. Sitting his pack down, he transmitted his McKenna Corporate Transportation Certification Documentation ID2204p from his datapad and said, “Void pass, please.” His shoulders sank as he forced himself to say the next part: “One-way.”
While the teller processed his form, Frank took one last look around. More black armor guarded the elevators and even more saturated the crowd. And there was a lot of crowd — but no shuttles? The external docking ports were all sealed, and the landing pads for smaller shuttles were all vacant. Some passengers lined up in boarding queues anyway. Others were in it for the long haul, turning the waiting area into a makeshift campground. The pirates must have been causing delays again; Frank had a feeling that he wasn’t getting out of here right away.
High on the wall opposite the external docking ports, a shimmering, white electrostatic force-field covered a large opening; it was calibrated to allow shuttles to pass through while holding the air in. But the only shuttles Frank could see were the Workforce Transit Shuttles passing by before entering the Workforce Transit Shuttle Bay on the other side of the tall blue wall that split the dome. Frank could get there from here through the men’s room, an unauthorized shortcut, one he’d used many times.
A buzz shook Frank’s datapad. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. “What!” he barked. He looked at the board. The prices were up again, but still... “I have the money,” he insisted. “Did you...?”
The young man behind the small electrostatic shield increased its power and said, “I am sorry, Mr. Porter, but it says that your account has been locked by Legal ‘pending further investigation.’ I can’t process you. I am so sorry.”
Frank boiled red. “No one said...! They didn’t tell me...!” But this guy was just a working-grunt like Frank. Frank took a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said as calmly as he could. “You can’t do anything, I know. But I will take this up with HR!”
Frank snatched up his bag and stomped away. Authorized or not, he wanted to stomp right back down to HR, but the omnipresent armor reminded him that something was going on today. He’d go tomorrow after all of this was over. Until then, he headed back to his apartment and away from everyone else.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Scott D. Coon