2. Machinamentum

 

Holes

Gunnar hated Deck Twelve. The air there hung heavy with unspeakable things, broken up only by a sour breeze that stunk of death. As a Fabricator, he had one of the few jobs that required him to visit nearly every corner of every deck of the ship, from the bathrooms to the cafeterias to every one of the environments. But none of them, not one of them, smelled quite like the Recycling Plant.

As he headed toward Wastewater Processing, where he’d been summoned minutes earlier, Gunnar looked up at the two miles of pipes that weaved overhead, occasionally snaking along the walls and down underfoot. Inside those pipes, pressurized waste of all kinds moved in the dark, their destination a series of massive vats that stood a hundred feet high. Deck Twelve was extra tall to allow for the sheer size of the vats. The waste inside them went through a series of highly-specialized processes in which the components were broken down and separated into their atomic building blocks. The sound of sloshing and squishing was ever present, and the odors that wafted from the vats left little to the imagination.

Yes, Recycling may have made their way of life possible, but it was still disgusting.

Gunnar crossed a catwalk, increasing his stride to clear the vat of black liquid below, thick bubbles popping on its oily surface, and wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead. The extra humidity generated by the processing meant the artificial sunlight was kept to a minimum on Deck Twelve, lit instead by computer displays and bioluminescence. It lent the deck an eerie color, nestled at some uncomfortable point between green and yellow.

Reaching the other side, he passed a group of men and women in orange uniforms, Recyclers crowded around a game of Bohap. The dice were currently in the hands of Saam, a man Gunnar knew too well. Saam had cheated at every game Gunnar had ever played against him, which wasn’t many once Gunnar caught on. Still, it was a lesson that had cost Gunnar more than a few Trade Points to learn.

“Look out, boys,” Saam said, “we got a yellow-suit on deck. If you’re not careful he’ll fabricate a knife right into your backs.” The others chuckled. It wasn’t uncommon to see mistrust between the Vocations.

“He’s the one you should watch. I’ve never seen a bigger cheater in my entire life,” Gunnar replied.

The dark-eyed man squinted at him as he rolled the dice on the ground. “Ehh, ignore him. He’s just a sore loser.”

Before anyone could stop him, Gunnar stomped the tumbling dice under his boot, eliciting a round of angry shouts. But when he lifted his foot, showing them the crushed dice with their shattered microchips inside, the angry shouts shifted toward Saam. “Harum zadeh,” Saam cursed under his breath.

“Enjoy your game,” Gunnar said with a grin, continuing on his way. A short while later, after making his way to Wastewater Processing and taking in the scene, he turned to Abigail. The slightly short but very curvy woman stood watching him in her orange uniform, her eternally dirty hands on her hips. “It stinks in here,” he told her.

“It usually does.”

“Yeah, well today it really stinks.”

“It’s like I told Seth, the scum skimmer is unresponsive on Clarifier Three.” She pointed to the large vat, this one more wide than it was tall. It usually hummed and churned with the sounds of dirty water, but for the moment it had fallen silent. “If you want to get out of here quickly, fix that and you can be on your way.”

Gunnar turned to Seth, who was watching him with multiwrench in hand. He’d worked with the Mechanic for a while now, yet he’d only drawn one conclusion about the guy: he was better looking than he was mechanically intuitive- and he wasn’t that good looking. “Did you try kicking it,” Gunnar asked him.

“I tried everything required when a scum skimmer is unresponsive.”

“Does that include kicking it?”

Seth shook his head. “It’s a defective Clarifier. You’ve had a look, now can you start fabricating a replacement unit?”

Gunnar laughed at the idea. As a big guy the sound carried far, echoing throughout the deck, probably down to where Saam was still explaining himself to an angry crowd of gamblers. “You want to replace the whole unit because of one bad skimmer?”

“It’s not just the skimmer. The analyzer is showing low sample line pressure. I checked for leaks, I checked the pumps, I even checked the suction header. They’re all perfect. And now the switchover isn’t communicating. No matter what I do, nothing works.”

“It sounds like you have a faulty brain,” Gunnar concluded.

“Excuse me?”

Gunnar moved to the Clarifier’s control panel. Ignoring Seth’s complaints, he opened the back of the panel and took a look inside. When everything looked good and clean he moved to the smaller, secondary panel that housed the power coupling as well as the breakers. Something caught his eye. A brown-black mass between two contact points. He smiled, proud of himself, and pulled the dead cockroach from the control unit. He tossed it on the ground, where it slid to a stop at Seth’s feet. “You’re supposed to be the mechanic,” he said, “not me.”

Abigail tried powering up the unit. The startup process started successfully, and within seconds it was humming along, back to its nasty business. She gave a dirty thumbs up to Gunnar.

“A temporary fix at best,” Seth pointed out.

“That’s true. It’ll probably only buy you another eight or nine years,” Gunnar replied.

Seth didn’t have much to say after that, so he gathered his things and left. After the Mechanic had gone, Gunnar closed the secondary panel and wiped his hands on his uniform. “Skitstövel. I can’t wait to get rid of him,” he sighed.

“Come on, he’s not that bad.” Abigail had begun running diagnostics on the Clarifier, her fingers moving expertly across the screen as she navigated its menus and submenus.

“Are we talking about the same guy? Seth, the one who just left? He’s all manual and no instinct. If I wanted to work with a computer, I’d ask Sunn for help.”

She snorted softly. “Well Sunn partnered you two up, so I guess you’re stuck with him.” Then she noticed the smug grin on Gunnar’s face. “What?”

“Desanto gets thawed out in two weeks.”

“Ahh, your buddy, the all-star Mechanic. You must be up crying every night waiting for him to thaw.”

“If that’s sarcasm,” Gunnar said, “you’re really bad at it.”

Abigail punched him in the arm. He tried to hide how much it had hurt. “You think they’ll want you two to work on that hull problem you’re always going on about?”

“If they’re smart. If not I’ll make sure they know how important it is. When I plead the case to the Captain, I bet you Desanto and I will get reassigned immediately. Then it’s goodbye to the walking manual.” He nodded to where Seth had been before he tucked tail and left.

“Well, if you want something to do until then, I can think of a few things to keep you busy.”

Gunnar’s eyebrow raised. Was Abigail hitting on him? He had to admit to some curiosity about what she was hiding under that uniform, but she’d never shown any interest in him short of a little workplace banter. Unless perhaps he’d misread all the signs. A typical Fabricator, he thought, better at reading schematics than people. “Like what,” he asked.

“There’s a D-13 malfunction code on Separator Six, for one thing.”

He nodded. Of course she’d meant nothing by it. “You know what the best thing about that code is?”

“What?”

“It’s not my problem.”

“Nice.”

“Call back Seth, he probably hasn’t slinked off too far.”

She laughed, and he tried not to look at her mouth. “Oh, come on. What are the odds I can convince you to stick around and help me?”

“Picture an ice cube in an atomic furnace,” he said, “then grab a hammer.”

“You missed your true vocation, Gunnar. You should have been a poet.”

“And miss out on beautiful life experiences such as these?” He checked the screen on his wrist. If he hurried he had just enough time to finish the next task on his list before he grabbed something to eat. As he prepared to leave, he noticed the dead cockroach he’d tossed at Seth’s feet was gone. He was sure of the place where it had landed just a minute ago, now just an empty spot on the vented floor. “Hey,” he called out. “Do you happen to know what eats cockroaches?”

Abigail put her hands on her wide hips and thought about it. “I don’t know…everything?”

“Then I hate to tell you, but I think you’ve got yourself an everything problem.”

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