The dreadnaught thundering overhead drowned out her voice.
“What did you say?” I leaned in close, raising my voice.
“It's nothing. Maybe we can talk again tomorrow after you leave manufacturing.” Jessie grazed her hand through my hair as she pulled away, leaning into the buffeting wind as she turned and walked away.
I tossed up the hood on my gamma coat and headed back to my quarters. The dry wind was tearing at me. It was ridiculously hot for the season. Sweat crawled down my nose and cheeks, salting my cracked lips. Dimly lit vacant streets howled for the heavy thud of meta boots.
My thoughts pestered me. Where were they going? For the last six months the dreadnaughts had been ferrying load after load out of here. They had no markings, or a flight schedule on the net. My workload at the plant had doubled in the last three months. Asking the supers for reasons was fruitless. I stared long into the hazy sky hoping for what, I didn't know. I headed to a vend bot for an evening meal.
“I'll have the protein flakes and a flavored water.” The third hand stored my flavor preferences. The vend bots liquid screen reflected a distorted fish eye perspective of my face and a nearly empty street behind me.
“20 bits please.” The vend bot prompted me and the third hand for electronic fund transfer. I knocked back my hood for the biometric scan. After pressing the send button, a bag of Teriyaki flavored flakes fell down into the bottom of the machine. Unhooking my stainless canteen from my belt, I mashed the drink button with it under the fill tube. Luke warm apple flavored water slowly filled the vessel. Thinking back to my childhood, I felt like I could murder someone for an ice cube.
“Can you hurry up! The dust will be rolling in any minute.” A cranker had slipped up behind me. Looking back at him with an annoyed smirk, I couldn't believe he had masked up already. Nightfall was at least an hour away. His filters were caked with the dull gray dust that coated everything.
“I'm done, O.K. It's not like this is the only vendor around. Geez.” I slipped aside with a mocking bow. His hard stare was apparent, even through his tinted goggles. Manners it seemed were slipping away like the water around Terradorn.
Shoving my supper into the slash pocket of my gamma coat, I pulled up the hood again and glanced around for bearings. Having to move every six months was really irritating. My last room was farther from the hub though. Room, after the cleansing, they claimed there would be room for everyone that was left. Yet here we were warehoused in prefab studios, no more possessions than would fit in a laundry bag. I recognized my building after hoofing it a dozen more blocks, the third hand vibrating in confirmation.
Another scan opened the foyer of Building AE. I stopped and slapped the red button on the wall, holding my arms out with my hood up. The violence of disinfection was a necessary albeit unpleasant process. The down draft of mist rocketed out of the spray nozzles in the ceiling as dirty fluid drained down into the grate on the floor. It only took ten seconds, but the burning chemicals lingering in my nose and mouth would keep me from eating my supper for a hour.
The hoist was broken when I moved in. The stairs gave my heart a workout twice a day. My studio was as comforting as a warm bath that night. Hanging my coat on a hook to dry, I plopped down in a tattered metal chair and checked the third hand. It was always recording. I checked the time stamp when I was walking Jessie back to her building. We were talking about the house again.
“Ours had a patio. We used to raise vegetables on it. The pergola was covered in vines that flowered every spring. It's alright I guess. Once I get.....” Then garbled static. The fiery thrust from the dreadnaught's jets pounded the tiny microphone in third hand. Oh well, after another twelve hour day I'll have to remind Jessie to pick up where we left off.
Pulling the bag and canteen out of my coat, I sat down on the bed and slowly kicked the heavy meta boots off my aching feet. The crunch of the flakes reminded me of the cereal we used to eat as kids. The apple flavored water was a far cry from actual apple juice. Chewing on the flakes, I savored memories from a childhood that seemed like it was eons ago. The taste of real food dangled in my subconscious.
Hearing another ship go by I glanced at the window. The glass was so caked with dust I could barely make out the glow of the jets powering the lumbering giant through the air, the last one tonight probably. I ran over and threw up the sash, maybe there were portals on the side of the ship I could see into. No, the skin was smooth, covered with a layer of dust. I shut the window. Soon the wind would pick up and howl like banshees at the grave, bringing literally tons of gray powdery dust from the barren plains outside Terradorn. Autonomous street sweepers ran 24 hours a day to pack the stuff back out into the wasteland. Bed time was eminent; a welcome shower and change into night clothes sent me off into a deep slumber. Maybe some insight would come in a dream.
* * *
Waking early was mandatory. The shift started at 7a.m. The alarm dinged repeatedly until I was able to roll over and swipe the snooze. Another five minutes of shut eye wouldn't keep me from being on time for day shift. My dreams slipped away like smoke. The howling outside had given way to a light dew on the window sill. It was the only water we would see for months. The harsh orange glow of our native star had already begun cooking the land like a giant fire in the sky. I stuck my canteen under the faucet of my only sink for a much needed watering. The taste of the municipal water was always a little funky, but I could fill up with some filtered stuff on my lunch.
I flipped the third hand into sub-reader format and started plugging queries into the search bar. Ships, population, dreadnaughts, destinations, each search came back with errors and broken links. I had watched the beasts until they turned into dots and disappeared over the horizon. Something had to explain what was happening around here. I couldn't imagine my load in manufacturing growing any more. I felt like I was on the edge of madness already.
The hike to work shortened up a bit, I was able to hop a tram a block from my residence. The car was loaded to the point of teetering back and forth as it crawled down the street. I wondered aloud at a few people taking in the sun without their protective long coat.
“Those guys are risking it all today, huh?” I nudged a portly older man with steel wool for sideburns that was standing next to me, grasping the rails as the wheels rocked from the potholes in the road.
“Not sure that it matters anymore.” The man was staring off into the hazy morning sky, his words flat and expressionless.
“Well I'm going to keep wearing mine. Word is the fixers are coming back in a few months. I heard at work the other day, the municipality was going to spend a few million bits spiffing up this side of the city.” Speculating about the government and what it was doing helped pass the time on a full shift. The man's expression was blank as a sheet as he turned and looked hard and stiff into my face.
Never could tell how a stranger might react anymore. I was looking forward to some filtered water and an honest days work. I made section leader and was bringing in two hundred bits a shift these days. Having made friends with Jessie a couple weeks ago, it felt like things were finally turning a little better for me. As the tram bumped and jostled, I pulled up her pic on my screen. Her bright smile and kind hazel eyes reminded me of some of the bubbly greeters at restaurants years ago before the cleansing.
The monstrous edifice referred to affectionately by its workers as 'The Keep' was looming into view. The first floor alone sprawled across 100,000 square feet of concrete slab. The floors above it housed all the manufacturing for the workers of Terradorn. One didn't need a uniform, choices were non-existent, the navy blue breeches, khaki shirts and ball caps didn't come in different colors much less shades. Gradually all the lines had been pared down to basic issue. From your canteen and spoon to your meta boots, every last one of us had the same mass produced stuff.
“Hey, Paula.” I had reached my station and was putting away my things when my coworker showed up for her shift. “What's that on your hat?”
“Do you like it? It's a finch pin.” Paula leaned over so I could get a good look at it. It was handmade from black and gold beads, with a tiny onyx stone for the eye.
“That's nice. Did you make it?” It sparkled and refracted the light from the powerful LED canons that bathed our workspace in blue/white light.
“Yes. I found some beads and wire at the resale and decided to make something that reminded me of better times. Didn't your hear? Last week the supers sent out a memo allowing personal decorations on our clothes.” Her smile reminded me that not all spirits in the city were broken.
The work day flew by. The 3D printer I operated needed to be unloaded after each assembly. I was cranking out units like a fiend, knowing that I would get to see Jessie when the shift was over. She worked several floors up on the sewing block. I hadn't seen her come in. Sometimes she would wait for me outside the plant before our shift so we could exchange pleasantries.
Lunch was a blur. The synthesizers popped out what ever protein shape you wanted. I paid an extra 10 bits for the filtered water. The sweet taste of pure unadulterated water was like manna from the sky. As I finished I was eager to get back and knock out the shift.
The third hand vibrated to let me know it was 7p.m. I reached up and took off my cap, wiping the sweat from my forehead with my shirt sleeve. I grabbed my gamma coat and threw it over my arm and hurried down to the exit. The shift change was underway and tired, sweaty people were milling their way down to the exit. I kept an eye out for Jessie; we usually found each other near the exit, outside The Keep. The lobby was packed shoulder to shoulder with other workers. I bumbled my way outside throwing on the cumbersome coat. Jessie wasn't waiting in her usual spot. That was odd. I pulled out the third hand and checked for messages. No notifications were on the screen. I felt a sinking feeling tugging on my guts. I started down the walkway worried and bothered. As a dreadnaught lumbered overhead a message popped on my screen.
sorry I didn't tell you yesterday. I knew I would not be in today. I got my orders. I hope you understand. Be Safe.
I watched as the massive transport powered off into the horizon. Somewhere out there was some other life. Maybe I shouldn't have taken the promotion. Hopefully my desiccated remains wouldn't be pounded into dust when the wasteland overtook Terradorn.