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The Workforce Drive

by Scott D. Coon

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4


The busy business day had left Residential Level Seven in crypt-like silence. The only soul in the halls was the armored guard by the elevators. Frank trudged to his apartment and pressed his thumb to the lock. It buzzed at him. UNAUTHORIZED.

“What now?”

“My scans indicate that you are no longer authorized to be in this area,” came that same muffled cadence, recited by a new voice.

Frank turned and looked into his own dimmed reflection once more. The guard from the elevators had come up behind him. “But this is my apartment,” he explained. “I live here.”

“My scans indicate—” repeated the guard.

“But I still have food in the fridge,” insisted Frank.

“that you are—”

“Listen to me, you freakin’ moron!”

“no longer authorized to be in this area,” finished the officer. He charged his baton.

Frank froze before the buzzing weapon. He waited for orders or threats but none came. When another elevator arrived, Frank slowly backed down the hall and through the parted doors. He didn’t choose a floor. He just shrank into the corner, pressing his backpack into the wall.

What was wrong with that guy?

The elevator filled with end of day traffic. When it emptied on the food services level, Frank followed them into the flowing currents of the broad corridor that wrapped the vast cafeteria. Not wanting to eat or be in public, he planned to hide in a corner with a stolen cup of coffee until he figured out what to do next.

Before Frank could cross the threshold, another tinted faceplate cut him off, reciting, “My scans indicate that you are no longer authorized to be in this area.”

“Seriously?” demanded Frank. “This is a public cafeteria!”

The officer unsnapped his gun holster and whispered, “Seriously.”

Heart racing, Frank put his hands up. He then backed into the surging crowd and let it carry him away.

What the hell is going on around here?

Frank drifted with the current, around and around, while the people surrounding him melted into a meaningless mass. Not knowing what to do next, he let the flow carry him until he spotted a familiar face and yelled, “Joey!”

Joey stopped and retreated to the wall, out of the flow of people.

Frank joined him and said, “You’re not gonna believe what’s been happening to me.”

Joey pulled back into a scowl. “To you?”

Frank dropped his eyes. “I know,” he said. “What happened to Reg, I—”

“Stop beating yourself up,” said Joey. “After Mike visited you in the hospital, he told me about the Tree and that blink you saw. It wasn’t your fault.” Joey scanned the hallway up and down. “That blink,” he whispered, “I think it’s a part of everything else.”

Frank reluctantly looked up and asked, “Everything else?”

“You really are blind, you and Mike,” said Joey, shaking his head. “Haven’t you noticed all the changes out here? You think all this new security is for nothing? And it’s not just McKenna.” Lowering his voice, he added, “The companies are doing something.”

“Companies?” asked Frank. “McKenna and Black Mountain cooperating on anything? And Western Consolidated? You’re nuts.”

“What’s nuts,” growled Joey, “is there hasn’t been a shuttle back to Hestia in weeks, not from here, not from any of the companies, but the ore gets back. They say pirates are always hitting the mining rigs and passenger shuttles. But you never see a news report about an ore barge being attacked.”

“But those are drones,” said Frank. “Would the news bother reporting those?”

“Ore is money. You think they don’t report money?” asked Joey. “Everything out here is about money and ‘no one gets to go home anymore’ is about money too.”

“What do you mean, ‘no one gets to go home anymore’?”

“We think they’re gonna trap us out here,” whispered Joey, scanning the crowd again, “legally somehow, force us to renew our crappy contracts or work for free after they arrest us on some trumped-up charge. It’s about to happen.

“First they’ll arrest anyone they think is trouble, like me. Then they’ll use a made-up emergency as cover to round up everyone already trying to go home. The companies will label them all criminals so they can turn them into free-labor: sorting trash, smelting, or worse. And there’re plenty of people waiting to be rounded up; have you seen the shantytown up in the shuttle dome?”

“Yeah, but... Wait, how would you know about other companies’ shuttles?” said Frank.

“People talk,” said Joey. He scanned the crowd again. This time he saw something.

“But the transit,” asked Frank, “that’s just pirates?”

“Wake up,” said Joey. “There are no pirates. It’s a lie. They don’t exist.” He made to scuttle away. He was looking back, his eyes locked on something behind him.

Frank stepped halfway into traffic and called to him across the rumbling crowd, “But why would the companies do this?”

“Why do the companies do anything?!”

A chill shook Frank’s spine. People pushed past him while he stood stone-faced, his mind blinking between two realities. In one reality, all of the boxes in the Heads-up Tree were green; which meant that Joey was nuts, all was well, and Frank would be able to go back to the colonies right after HR fixed the mistake of locking his account... and his apartment. In the other reality, all of the boxes were red, which meant that...

Four armored guards plowed past Frank, pulling him from his thoughts as they nearly knocked him off his feet. Joey was now several meters away from Frank, his pace quickening. Then Joey abruptly stopped. Another force of black armor was approaching from the other direction. Joey put his hands up. The guards circled him, creating a clearing around Joey and bringing the busy traffic to a stop.

Frank edged closer.

A voice, muffled by a tinted faceplate, announced to Joey and to the crowd, “You are under arrest for communicating with known pirates.”

Joey opened his mouth, about to say something, but a guard seized his wrist and cranked him to his knees. Another guard slammed his boot into Joey’s back, driving him the rest of the way to the metal floor.

Frank didn’t move or speak or look away.

“And for conspiracy to commit mutiny on a commercial space platform,” concluded the muffled voice while the others cuffed Joey and dragged him off. The busy corridor obediently made way for the official formation.

And Frank did nothing. He just watched silently, like all of the other silent witnesses.

* * *

The elevator opened on Residential Level Nine. The hallway was clear, no black armor, at least not at the moment. Frank raced down the corridor to SJ-923b. He was about to ring the bell but stopped. If he put his finger on the icon, it would probably alert security that he was not authorized to be in this area. Frank pounded on the metal door instead.

“What the hell! Forget how to ring!” bellowed Mike as the door slid open. As soon as Mike saw Frank on the other side, he reached to close it again.

“Wait!” begged Frank. “I need help... please.”

Mike filled the doorway with his body. “No help here, not for you!”

“But they arrested Joey and—”

“And they’re going to arrest you,” said Mike. “They’ve already been here asking stuff. I don’t need that!” He stepped back and shut the door before Frank could react.

Arrest him? For what? But Frank already knew the answer. Joey had told him. For nothing.

Frank needed to get out of here before Mike called security on him. He got back on the elevator. Again, he didn’t pick a floor. He stood quietly in the corner, trying to figure out where he could possibly go, until the droning flat-screen grabbed his attention with an image of his exploded mining rig. “Initial findings indicate that pirates were responsible for McKenna’s latest loss. In other news...”

Frank glared at the flat-screen. Pirates? How could they blame him and pirates? That made no sense! Or it made too much sense. Was this the pretext they were planning to arrest him on? Were they going to say that he’d worked with the pirates to blow up his own rig?

The question fell away when the elevator’s flat-screen suddenly went dark. While the other passengers traded jokes about McKenna not paying their Internet bill, Frank pressed harder into the corner.

“Due to pirate activity,” announced the intercom, “communications between Stone River and Hestia are unavailable at this time. Please enjoy this prerecorded entertainment.” As a sitcom replaced the news, Frank shivered.

Wake up. There are no pirates.

Everything was happening just as Joey had said. Frank had to do something. Thinking of the shantytowns up in the shuttle bay, he felt an inescapable need to warn them. Though he knew it would alert security, he pressed the icon for the Shuttle Level. He needed to get up there and tell someone something, although he didn’t know who or what.

The elevator reached the dome and Frank entered the confusion of the shuttle bay, now even more crowded than before. All around him, workers and their families waited for shuttles that would never come. He needed to get these people out of here fast. But what was he supposed to do? Stand on a chair and scream at them? That wouldn’t work.

Before he could think of anything, the intercom announced, “Due to pirate activity in this area, all employees are to return to their work or residential locations immediately.”

Emergency lights flashed red. Ticketing cubes shuttered their windows. Families huddled around their children. A line of black armor blocked the elevators and spread across that entire wall. Frank was too late.

“My scans indicate that you are no longer authorized to be in this area.”

As the far too familiar phrase echoed down the line, another line of armor appeared along the wall opposite the elevators. Every baton was buzzing. Both lines advanced. The dome filled with screams. Two converging waves of fleeing people crashed upon each other, crushing Frank from all sides.

Beside him, the surge swept a young woman up, off her feet. Frank tried to reach in and shelter her, but the heaving mob ripped her away. A docking port opened and the advancing guards herded the crowd through it and onto a large personnel transport where more black armor waited.

As the flow pushed him toward the transport, Frank realized that everywhere that he had been chased from today, everywhere that he’d be unauthorized, it had all lead him here, it had lead them all here and into that ship. That ship was exactly what Joey was taking about, a mass arrest — a march into forced labor. To hell with that!

As the pressure of the mob eased, Frank searched for another way out. Then he remembered one, the men’s room. He hiked up his pack and wedged his way across the flow. The raging current of flesh and bone bashed him toward the transport, but he fought through.

Inside the men’s room, someone had already pried open the maintenance door. Miners were pouring through the unauthorized shortcut and into the Workforce Transit Shuttle Bay. There were no shuttles there either, only security, but less of it. Desperate men ran like frightened children while faceless armor chased them down, one by one.

Frank spotted two guys prying open another door. When security tackled them, Frank slipped through the door, unnoticed. On the other side he found a silent repair bay. Along the walls, large alcoves held shuttles, mining rigs, and EXO-Vs in various states of disassembly. But at the back of the bay, a large Workforce Transit Shuttle and a standard EXO-V were charged and ready to be put back into service. Only a shimmering electrostatic shield blocked his way.

He tried his thumb. As expected, it buzzed at him. He dropped his backpack and searched the repair bay until he found a sledgehammer. One way or another, this shield was coming down. Frank raised the heavy hammer over his head — but then he stopped.

“Come with us, please, Mr. Porter,” said a man’s voice from behind him.

Frank put the hammer down and his hands up. When he turned, he found that agent and his partner, the ones from the hospital. They had their batons drawn.

“Please listen to me,” begged Frank. “They’re doing this to you, too. None of us are going home anymore.”

Coreman raised his baton and said, “Mr. Frank Henry Porter, M-06-18-01-14-11-P-Expired, we are home.”

“But... but...” stammered Frank.

“But you are under arrest,” said Coreman, “for conspiring with known pirates.”

Frank realized that there was no talking to this guy. But he couldn’t just surrender; it would mean jail forever, for nothing. He glanced at the sledgehammer. Maybe if he moved fast enough, he could grab it and hurt both agents just enough to make a getaway.

As Frank’s hands slowly lowered, Coreman stowed his baton and drew his gun. “Please do reach for the weapon, Mr. Porter.”

Frank put his hands back up. But Coreman’s finger continued to tighten on the trigger while a smile tightened across his mouth.

Suddenly, sparks popped. The gun dropped. Coreman arched back, arms twitching, mouth foaming. Then he crumbled to the floor. Behind his collapsed body stood Feliz, her stun baton fully discharged.

Looking down at the twitching agent, Frank muttered, “There are no pirates.”

“Do tell, dumbass,” growled Feliz. “The companies invented them. Someone needs to get out of here and tell the galaxy what the companies are doing to us.” She used her thumbprint to bring down the shield. Then she shoved Frank toward the shuttle that sat next to the EXO-V. “You get out while I cover you.”

Frank looked at the large, round Transit Shuttle and the tiny round EXO-V sitting beside each other. The shuttle could make it all the way to Hestia on one charge and had room for ten passengers. He turned back to Feliz. Pointing at Coreman’s twitching body, he said, “You can’t stay here after that. Come with me.”

Feliz took a shuddering breath and said, “Those goons in black armor could come in here at any second, and I said I’d cover you, so go. Now!”

Frank looked at the vehicles and the second static shield covering the portal into space. Beyond it he saw a domed farm ship, its food and compost drones going back and forth between the space station and the dome. Frank told Feliz, “Cover me if you want, but I’m taking the EXO-V. You take the shuttle.”

“Yeah,” said Feliz, slowly nodding, “and maybe I’ll fill it first, save some people. But you go now. Get back to Hestia. Make sure everyone knows what’s happening out here.”

Frank nodded and climbed into the EXO-V. Before closing the hatch, he said, “Thank you.”

She just nodded.

Minutes later, Frank was kilometers away, clinging to the side of a drone heading for the farm ship. He peered through the Superman window in the EXO-V’s chest. Beyond it was the omnidirectional ocean of wonder that had drawn him to Stone River in the first place. This would probably be the last time that he’d get to see it like this. But it seemed so unimportant now.

Frank still had to figure out how to get back to Hestia — but he would. And once he got there, he’d do what Feliz had asked; he’d make sure that everyone knew that the companies were trapping their workers out there and arresting people for nothing, turning them into slave labor. Frank was going to tell the whole galaxy what the companies were doing to the miners of Stone River.

But then he had to wonder... Would anyone listen?

* * *

FROM: sample1@McKenna.dsmhnet

TO: temp@BlackMountain.dsmhnet, abcd@WesternConsolidatedInc.dsmhnet

SUBJECT: Workforce Stabilization and Enhancement Drive: Test P4.0

Phase III was a success! The news cycles unfolded as per design with no unscheduled events. Phase IV begins now. As discussed, the “pirate issue” will continue to disrupt communications and transit completely until the third quarter of next year. Monthly status meetings will continue, ensuring the appropriate reintegration of the Stone River workforce into the information networks and to ensure that transit fees reach optimal retention levels in concert across all providers.

Be prepared to highlight our good work during the closed-doors meeting at this year’s Frontier Mineral Producers Conference. Each participating corporation will need to prepare a quantitative presentation of projected cost reduction associated with each of the following:

Be sure to highlight that, due to our efforts, our new shared projections for the lifespan of the Stone River Project have been revised up from a net gain of 29.8% to 30.1%.

We look forward to celebrating this managerial accomplishment together when we meet at the FMPC.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Copyright © 2017 by Scott D. Coon

Proceed to Challenge 714...

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