“You know why they call it the graveyard shift?” I had activated my device to message her. Third shift could be so boring.
“Humor me.” Jessie had yet to prep for bed. I was hoping for a video chat while she changed into her pajamas.
“After you have been at it awhile you wish you were dead.” I said with a chuckle. She knew I was being sarcastic. This was the easiest job I ever had. 'Working midnight shift' had been much better than the repetitive stress of the factory floor. The device shrieked, warning me. “Sorry, Jessie. I gotta go, The boss is pinging me.”
The third hand lit up with a message. 'there are two sweepers in section 10 that have gone offline, round them up before you end your shift in the morning.' Wonderful, hauling dead sweepers to repair was about as fun as eating chalk. The worn out buggy they used to haul stuff only started on the third or fourth try, it had one headlamp out and died if you didn't hold your tongue right. Another message popped on the screen. 'Beacon on Tower 3 at East Gate down. Priority repair.' I felt my gut sink down into my meta boots.
We worked maintenance. The beacons were high power strobe lights on towers outside the gates. They were essentially warning lights to keep the dreadnaughts from crashing into the buildings and structures around Terradorn. Visibility was compromised, especially at night.
I can't tell Jess I have to take a trip into the wasteland.
* * *
Changing a light bulb, what could be hard about that? I located the procedure on my third hand and read. After a few minutes, I had a plan. Run full speed into the wall head first and knock myself out so I wouldn't have to do it.
“Relax. It's not really as bad as it sounds.” Boozer had called to reassure me. As an experienced night shift maintenance man, he had done it all.
“Have I ever told you that I'm afraid of the dark and heights? Why wasn't I briefed on this aspect of the job when they hired me? The interviewer said 'Most of the time you will be watching a monitor. The cleaning is handled by robots.' What a line of crap.” I had video off, Boozer's face would stop a train. Googly eyes dangled over a bulbous nose, on top of a chin weaker than your grandma's tea.
There was a long pause before Boozer spoke again. “It's those damn opposable thumbs. Robots have terrible thumbs.” In spite of decades of advances in robotics, fine motor skills were not a robot's forte.
“I took this job so my feet could hold down a stack of papers.” I had been assured I was one of a dozen night shift managers that just had to monitor the cleaning robots from my station.
“That's what we get to do 99% of the time. Unfortunately the 1% sucks pretty bad. Don't worry, the suit has vitals monitoring and the buggy is on the network. I will be in touch with you during the entire mission.” Boozer was trying desperately to tamp down my fears. “There is a com link in the suit. We can talk about boobs while you're working.”
“Ha ha very funny. I'll call back when I have the suit on. Over and out.” Letting out a sigh, I looked around.
Locating the cabinet with the protective gear, a helmet that looked like a prop from Battle Star Galactica was sitting on a folded yellow jumpsuit. I felt the material, it was made of a sort of heavy rubber and smelled like a sweaty sock that had been festering under a bed for months. Boozer had warned me to strip down, no underwear, or risk sweating pools into the booties by the time I was done. I'm glad there are no mirrors in here. It felt like I was cramming my body into a giant condom. The gloves and helmet fit so tight I was getting claustrophobic. I finished by pulling my meta boots on over the mess.
“Boozer. Can you hear me? I'm suited up.” The com link was voice activated.
“I can hear you. You are officially safe to dive into a blue whale's vagina. The buggy will be ready to go, just make sure you don't forget the light bulb. The buggy is programmed for auto-pilot. Just take some deep breaths.” Boozer was trying to reassure me.
The buggy was covered in a heavy layer of the same yellow rubber to block the blowing dust. Manual controls were onboard in case the auto-pilot failed. I eased into the cockpit. It lurched toward the exit as the sliding doors led me out into the darkness of the raging dust storm.
“Are you and Jess official yet?” Boozer slid the question in like a poker card you couldn't turn over.
“What does that mean? OFFICIAL.” I had closed my eyes to calm myself. The hot wind was buffeting the vehicle making it like a cheap carnival ride.
“You know what it means.” He was fishing, knowing Jess and I had been getting closer for a few months.
“Alright dickhead! She's a 36 D cup and yes, YES we are official!” I would have started sweating if I wasn't already sweating my ass off.
“Exclusive?” The way his voice turned up at the end of the word as he drew the pronunciation out made me want to reach through the mic and slap his puffy red cheeks.
I felt the blood rush to my face. “That's enough Boozer. If we buy a farm and have 10 kids, you will be the first to know.”
“We have to go out for beers one night and celebrate. You have been single so long I thought you were aiming for the seminary. For the record, I prefer a B cup with centralized nipple placement.” There was a reason his handle was Boozer.
“Let's just focus on this job.” It was barely past midnight and I was getting more nervous. Not nervous like in a waiting room, nervous like 'I'm going to fucking DIE!'
The buggy plowed through the dust as it piled up in the broken streets. The all-terrain tires ripped through it, bumping and jostling the frame. It stopped suddenly.
“Alright son, you are at the East Gate. Once you enter the wasteland you are going to have to rely more on instincts and feel. The helmet has head lamps on each side, but you won't be able to see much.” Great! Nothing more fun than blindly climbing a tower at night.
The buggy crawled out into the wasteland. “You see this shit? Booze, I couldn't see a donkey fucking an elephant out here.” My com link was streaming a video of the buffeting torrents of dust and wind to his monitor. “Let's get this over with. How far to the tower from the gate?”
“It's not that far, but your ride will be in low gear four wheel drive, so it will take a few minutes.” The screen on my dash projected a 3D model of the tower and the path to the ladder.
“How am I going to do this if I can't see?” Looking at the blowing dust through the buggy's windshield made my heart pound, the violence of the wasteland at night was almost inconceivable.
Booze tried to allay my fears. “I have you pulled up on the projector. Your suit has GPS built in. I can see your position on my model. Don't worry, I'll help you through it.”
After a few minutes that seemed like ten, the buggy stopped. “You are at the tower, exit the buggy and turn left. Walk until you feel the cage. The ladder is surrounded by a metal cage.”
I grabbed the replacement beacon lamp and hopped out into a wind that was whipping viciously, the gray dust pelting my visor. I shuffled and inched toward the tower “O.K I can feel the cage. Why aren't these ladders enclosed?”
“They were built a hundred years ago. If you think the government of Terradorn is going to retrofit them, you haven't seen all the pot holes in the streets they were going to fill last year.”'
“Do I start climbing?” My hand was gripping the worn and rusty steel.
“Take your time climbing the ladder. There is a loop on the belt of the suit; you can clip the replacement bulb to it. When you get to the top, stop and rest.” Boozer's calm voice steadied me.
I began a labored ascent of the ladder rungs. The steel was slick and caked with dust. After a few feet I closed my eyes and inched upward by feel. The last twenty feet winded me. “I'm at the top of the tower. Where is the cage?” I was raising my voice, trying to compete with the roaring gusts.
“This is where it gets a little dicey. There is a tether in the pocket of the suit. It is ten feet long. Pull it out and clip it to the top rung.”
“O.K. Now what.” The headlamps illuminated the dust like I was a catfish in a muddy pond. I could see my hands and not much else.
“The last ten feet of ladder has no cage and is at a steep angle. The safety line will catch you if you get blown off the tower. Don't let go of the ladder until you reach the beacon assembly.”
I gripped the handles with all my strength. My boots were slipping on each step. I reached the top and could just make out a circular pod.
“There is a latch on the bottom. Reach out until you feel it. Slowly release the latch and the protective cover for the bulb will flip out of the way.”
“The cover is off.” The dust was a vortex of angry devils trying to tear me off the ladder.
“Now reach out and grasp the bulb and pull straight up. If you feel something the size of a 38 Double D cup you have the right thing.”
“This is no time for joking around!” I barely fit my fingers around bulb with one hand, the other had a death grip on the top rung.
“Now just take the new bulb out of it's protective housing and plug it in, then, reverse the process.” The old bulb slipped from my hand and skittered away clanking down the tower.
“O.K. It's in. I'm heading back down the ladder.” Feeling my way down each step, I descended the tower, the wind and gray dust buffeting me through my protective suit.
* * *
“Why?” Jessie's angry words shot into my ear.
“Emergency airlifts Jess. If they have to fly a dreadnaught at night, these strobe beacons keep them from crashing into the outer wall and towers.” I couldn't see her but knew the posture, hands on her ample hips, brows knitted together in frustration.
“They never fly at night!” Anger had a way of lighting her up. She was irresistible even when mad. Passion is a double edged sword.
“In emergencies, they don't have a choice.” I was fumbling around for the right words.
“You have only been on the maintenance team for a few months. I don't think it's fair.” Her tone was slowly changing to one of concern.
“They have a fancy protective suit and the buggy has been altered to handle the wind and dust.”
“Why couldn't it wait till morning?” Her anxiety was still seeping into the words.
“I don't know Jess. I did what I had to do.” I was so tired. I just wanted to go to bed.
“I'm glad your safe. Call me when you get up. I'll be off work.” She hadn't said it yet, but I could tell she wanted to. We ended the call with an awkward pause and a 'Good Bye'.