May 28th: Trying to change
Kicking Off the Dust
, by D.K. Snape

Wiping the beaded sweat from my forehead, I stumbled from the class. That apprenticeship exam had to be the hardest thing I’ve ever written, though I felt good about my solutions to the problems posed. I think I knew most of the answers. My 3-D solutions hadn’t flamed when I’d hit enter, though I’d seen a couple of other kids’ go up in virtual smoke and caught their escorted removal out of the corner of my eye. I’m not sure I understood their error. It’s not like we hadn’t studied, practiced and been assigned homework of every single problem scenario a million times in class.

With my fellow sufferers, I leaned against the wall waiting for the electronic scoreboard to load the results. We all watched it scroll through the ‘Congratulations’ headers, mumbling amongst ourselves about the exam and solutions we remembered for the individual problem sets. I didn’t join in the bitch session I heard a couple of others get into. To me, that final exam just didn’t seem like it’d been too hard. Being able to finish it spelt success.

Our robot RA scooted through us offering high energy drinks and promising exam results soon. The delay, minor really, caused tensions to rise. Everyone knew our anticipated jobs depended on our standing in this final apprenticeship exam. Not that we wouldn’t be guaranteed a job – the trade had more jobs than qualified people – but the cream jobs only got offered to the kids with the highest standings.

A soft cascade of notes caught everyone’s attention. The hallway stilled as all head swiveled to look at the overhead screen. We waited seconds for the list to appear. Top marks always came out first.

I held my breath as I watched.

Adams, AJ, 98.75%, Scoolie, TM, 98%, Ziebert, DK, 98%.

The list scrolled on but I no longer watched. Nor cared.

Ziebert, DK, Me. I’d pulled off a fantastic mark. Not the top. But I’d tied for second. Fantastic!

I pumped my arm in the air twice, bouncing for joy, traveling further down the hall with every triumphant leap. Only now, with the marks released, would the job postings come up. I wanted to see if any Wheel jobs happened to be on the list. That’s where I aimed; one of those jobs, high above Earth. Truly, I only got into this apprenticeship program so I could get up there.

Listen. I know I’m no brainiac. I don’t have whatever it takes for theoretical mumbo jumbo. I work well with my hands. I like erecting fiddly little pieces, putting them all together. And I adore watching as power connects. For me, this government sponsored electrician apprenticeship program became my ticket to a better life. A life off over-crowded Earth. A life spent helping complete the Wheel. And maybe, I can dream, a berth on a spaceship sent out to capture asteroids or explore our solar system.

I set my sights on a job up on the Wheel back about eight grade. Some CALM class, that’s Career and Life Management course you need a pass in to graduate, assignment researching adult working life we’d been assigned. I read an article on careers in space. Even at that tender age the job availability spectrum caught my attention, because Dad got laid off. Again.

I memorized that info knowing our downgraded living accommodation’s school might not carry this link. See, the further down the ladder a kid started in life the fewer advantages came her way. Even the few perks a blue-collar family expected never trickled down to the street-scrubber level.

I planned on getting outta this rat’s life. Grasping at education’s the route I figured to take.

I aimed for real out, not being forced to change locales every time my face hit a wanted poster. I didn’t have the deft hand of pickpockets. And night crawling ‘round rooftops, evading the chops searchlights ain’t one of my favorite sports. Not that I tried either activity. I stayed as far from those press gangs as possible, considering where I hung my hat. Those gangs are serious ‘bout being members for life.

I worked my butt off through the next four years, getting great marks in maths and techie courses, noticing my class get smaller every year as other kids gave up. I stood my ground, insisting the school spring for distance learning courses for me when the school didn’t carry a subject I needed. Thanked my lucky stars when a couple of teachers musta noticed my drive and championed me. I even wrote to our district proctor, begging for the money to fund a coupla of those subjects.

I studied at the library some nights when I needed quiet to get those facts into my thick skull. The walls at our cheap-ass doss were paper-thin and the neighbors loved to have screaming matches every night.

I even dumpster dove, scrambling with the streeters to get a little more protein. I’d read in some zine that a growing brain needed all the protein it could get to fine tune those intelligence synapses and I needed all the help I could get. The min-assist pap’s enough for menial labor function, but I aspired to an occupation using real brain power.

The worlds’ acceptance of the British educational system of technical O level skill-education verification sure made my life a lot easier. I mean, really, what did someone like me need with the old standard North American classical education? Applied maths, basic grade ten English comprehension? Those I could handle. Understanding technical drawings and blueprints, applied physics – now they tweaked my fancy. But high-brow Shakespeare never filled anybody’s belly. And theoretical sciences, governance and history? Sure, they’d be nice. But not required for my exodus plan.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve every respect for any kid who can make sense of the theory behind chemical bonds and double helixes. Or those who can compute stresses and loads. We need those kids. They expand our understanding and develop new technologies all the time. More power to them. I’m just not one of them.

I guess you can say it worked. I swept those O level exams with ease; aced ‘em to the amazement of my teachers. Solidifying my future. I hoped. ‘Course, then I’d have to find a way to earn big creds to afford any further training. It’s not like the moula factories gonna lend me enough creds for tuition.

Right about then, to my great relief, the government decided to offer underprivileged kids like me scholarships to high end techie institutions. Held an entrance exam session coupla blocks from home so I didn’t hafta save for a rail ticket. I wandered over the night before, carefully skirting all the gang spots and parked myself in the shadows till morning. ‘Bout halfway through the night ‘nother body slid close to mine seeking shared warmth. We whispered friendly-like about our dreams a bit before I told him I needed some shut eye. Gads did he ever snore. He stayed close by when I palmed my ID. The uniforms ran me, read my credentials, approved me and let me through.

I waited a moment, but when his ID didn’t pan out, I followed the directions given, walked down this echo-y hall, turned right at the third door and found myself in a huge room filled with desks. I took the bottom left one, palmed the surface and watched my name blink up on a screen at the front of the hall. Pretty soon the room populated with others just like me – kids desperately trying for an out. Their names lit up too.

A monitor, holding a cloth to her nose walked between the rows, looking at each of us with an expression I chose to see as pity. Can’t say I understood that. We, these few of the far too many peons nobody cared about, had a chance. Maybe not much of one. But still, a chance. More monitors entered, taking positions throughout the room.

A really loud bell rang. Everybody looked up. A loudspeaker whined. A condescending voice, talking real slow like we’d come outta some primitive cave, instructed us about how this test would be conducted, the length and the expectations of our behavior.

I bit my tongue, frowning. I might be poor. But nobody ever’d accused me of being stupid.

A platoon of uniforms marched in, surrounding us, their backs against the walls. They just stood there, not looking at us, nor at the monitors.

I decided to ignore them. I hadn’t planned on committing any mayhem, so I didn’t need to fear them. Maybe they’d come to protect us?

When my desk lit its interactive screen I read the waiver screen, palmed it to agree with the terms. And the test began.

I’d expected electrical problems, math and science questions. But this test wanted regurgitation of all manner of subjects. I dredged up almost forgotten lessons, sweating buckets as the test went on. Sometime during those hours, someone, and I never noticed who, delivered water and a pap meal. I took a moment from the screen, thankfully gulping both. Just when I figured I’d run outta steam, that I’d never be able to answer any more questions, my screen blanked.

To my surprise two uniforms immediately came to my desk. One motioned me to follow him, the other took my back. They escorted me deep into the building, down hallways, up elevators, across glassed in flyovers. Finally we reached a desk set in the middle of what I’d only ever seen in the museum, an atrium edged with exotic plants, glass windows overlooking the city, but high enough up I saw greenery, like a meadow, off in the distance.

“Congratulations,” the woman behind the desk stood, offering her hand. “Your test results are extremely noteworthy. You are to be admitted to the Electrical Apprenticeship Academy.” She held out a loop of metal. “Please let this Academy ID encircle your wrist. It will allow you entrance to all relevant classes and labs, the library, the cafeteria and your Academy student lodgings as long as your grades are adequate and your deportment within Academy standards. You have no reason to return to your doss for belongings.”

As soon as I touched the metal, it crawled over my fingers and onto my wrist. Once there, it settled firmly against my skin. Sure I could move it centimeters up and down. But without serious intervention, no way would it come off. I raised an eyebrow but she ignored the implied questions.

“Please follow the guide in your bracelet to your room. There you will find bathing facilities and your student uniform. Once attired, you may enter the cafeteria and eat. We expect you to return to your room after eating and log into your computer. Tomorrow, please follow the schedule the computer will print for you.” She sat back at her desk dismissing me entirely.

The bracelet tugged at my wrist, directing me down another hallway. It pressed against me at the elevator. It dropped five levels once I’d entered, directed me left as I exited and pressed against me at room 555. The door panel instructed me to press my palm against a raised panel which slid open as soon as I complied.

I looked around at the spare decorations. This would be my home for the next three years. If all went well. And I planned on it going extremely well. I’m not saying I didn’t struggle. Nor that everyone acted decently towards the scholarship student. I didn’t care. I hadn’t come for the social events. Nope. I wanted a better life. One of my own choosing.

Today, ah yes today. Seeing my exam score, feeling the power from applying my butt to the chair, working my brain to it’s limits, yeah today I showed my worth.

I sweated buckets for that 98%. Today, the culmination of all my hard work netted me a chance that never would have come my way.

The posting board recognized my print, throwing up cream jobs for my perusal. I scanned the first couple. Good pay, decent hours, even a retirement package on one, if I signed up for life. Drawbacks I saw, all on Earth. I’d set my heart on getting off Earth, up there, where the action I wanted to get involved in, happened to be.

I told the board “Not interested,” drawing some surprised looks from my fellow top graders.

Fifth job posting slowly loaded as if the board itself agreed with my fellows. And yes, I’d looked forward to seeing these jobs. Patiently I watched two more load, and another, until my entire section held Wheel jobs. These I read carefully.

I’d kept myself abreast of all the scuttlebutt about each Wheel section – well as much as I could find. I knew which Master I’d like to work under, and where they worked. Sure enough, Sector Two, Elevator maintenance and shuttle port startup posted a junior journeyman electrician position opening, prereq space or deepsea time.

Just my luck. During my co-op break in my last year, the only one ever offered to me, I’d chosen the unpopular deepsea stint. The Marianas Trench system upgrade work. Even got an awesome reference from the Master there.

I thumbed the posting, signifying my desire to be considered. The board hesitated, actually questioned my decision. ‘Are you sure?’ it spelled out. I thumbed yes. The posting disappeared, sent on its way for approval or rejection.

I moved just behind Scoolie, watching as she pondered over the first set of listings. “You want to stay on Earth?” I had to ask.

“My parents want me to,” she said over her shoulder. “Dad’s brother died on the Cooke Elevator construction project. Company claimed worker error. They’d be terrified if I hired on any Wheel project. I can’t swim, so deepsea is out of the question. I’m slightly claustrophobic so any intra-geo jobs are right out. And I gotta earn big right off the bat. My parents gave up a lot for my schooling. I kinda gotta pay them back.”

My eyes opened wide. I’d never pictured her as well-off. I couldn’t even imagine what the real cost of our program set her parents back.

Thankfully, I’d qualified for that government scholarship. It covered the program fees, first year supplies and a miniscule sum leftover. Good thing I excelled in the first year. The second year the government discontinued their program. Guess not enough kids took advantage. Or maybe not many succeeded. I heard about the discontinuation half way through my first year. Me, being a slum escapee, didn’t know squat about scholarships or sponsorship. Never heard about companies giving money to students in need.

Well, I kinda panicked. Knew the first year’d been paid. But I needed a cash influx within fast diminishing months to continue. I ranted for a few days, feeling wronged by officials who didn’t care about the little guys like me. Felt like they’d doled out enough crumbs to get me hooked, then decided to clean the floor after all.

I whined to my guidance counselor, terrified I’d lose the only way I could see to get out of the life I’d been dealt. She spoke to a few of the masters teaching my classes. I musta impressed at least one of them. The counselor came back with names of a few charities who might be interested in helping, several contests where if I wrote an award winning composition I might win enough for a few credits, a scholarship program

Me, a techie type with no scholarly instincts writing a composition? Even finding time with my course load wouldn’t be easy.

Well I surprised even my own self. Guess my inner drive made me accomplish the impossible. I wrote two compositions, one essay and one pleading letter. Managed to score, winning a sponsorship. Unfortunately that only paid the program fees. For textbooks and equipment. I won a scholarship as well, giving me a few extra creds. Realizing I still didn’t have quite enough, I worked part-time waiting tables in a rich hotel restaurant on weekends for meals and tips to pay the extras no scholarship ever considered – like regular meals, a heavy jacket, new shoes and an occasional movie or concert.

Still, I nodded. I felt for Scoolie. Parental strings aren’t easy to overcome. My family just hoped I’d get a job with enough pay so maybe I’d remember them every now and then and send a monetary gift. And I knew if my little sister got accepted anywhere, I’d add my share to make her life a little easier.

“Good luck,” I told her just as my board flashed for attention. “Acceptance. Report June 22nd, Vancouver District, Sector 5, 1500 hours. Cabin on Freighter 2099 booked. Destination Cooke Atoll. Elevator access to be confirmed after ship arrival. Appear with credentials, identification and no more than 10 kilos personal luggage. Welcome Journeyperson.”

I jumped for joy. Mine! I accepted congratulations from fellow classmates, wished them luck and raced for my doss. I wanted to spend a little time with my family before embarking on my dream.

Closing the student room took scant moments. I’d never had much, so everything fit in my sack. I signed out permanently, waited minutes for my deposit rebate, leaped over balustrades, bounded down the stairs and out. I stopped at the market two blocks from home, buying a family-sized protein meal and splurged on a cake.

I’d been hired at what appeared to be an awesome journeyperson experience. My dream come true. I planned to celebrate. With my family.

Four days later my mother and sister walked me over to the TransCont L station. Mom had tears in her eyes when we hugged that final time. Neither one of us knew if I’d be able to afford a visit down for years. She’d never find the credit to visit me. Sis, she smiled, told me she’d miss me and asked me to write occasionally. They waved as my train took off.

Vancouver here I come I told myself as I made myself comfortable. Only took four hours to cross the country. I transferred to the Sector 5 rail, grabbed a tram to the Freighter and boarded her at 1415 hours. A mate checked my credentials against his list, showed me to my dinky cabin, handed me a map of the passenger corridors and told me mess opened at 1730.

Once he vanished, I stowed my sack, found the shared head, washed up and set off to explore. The ship was huge. I stood at a rail as she set sail, waving goodbye to land for the next 38 hours. For a few minutes I listened to the containers groan as they moved with the sea swells and resettle. More than a little unnerved me.

I still had time to explore. I set my timer to 1700 so I’d have time to find the dining room and off I trotted, peeking and peering into everything on the passenger approved routes.

Open sea movement caught me off guard. I had a moment of seasickness. But I found a porthole, balanced my inner ear to the horizon, adjusted my walk, and promptly forgot about the slight roll of the ship. Lucky me.

At 1715 I located the mess hall. Large windows lined one side. Bolted tables, chairs on runners and a slight lip at the table edge reminded me again that I was probably kilometers out to sea already. I found my nametag at a window seat, sat with my back to the view to observe my fellow passengers as they arrived.

Several middle-aged gentlemen came in, deep in conversation, taking seats in the a middle of the room. A family of four took the table behind mine, whispering excitedly about their planned vacation on the Wheel. Crew filed in, seating themselves at tables nearest the galley doors.

At exactly 1730 hours, as the galley doors swung open to admit trolleys of metal domed delicious smelling food, the mess doors swung and six people my age, two females and four males, ran through. They skidded to a stop at my table, sat, laughing as they all looked up at the main chromo.

“Made it,” one of the guys laughed breathlessly. “That passageway is not a short cut. I don’t care what that map says.”

I unrolled my map. “Which one?” I asked. “I didn’t have much exploring time yet, but I’d love any input you can give me. I’m Dekes.”

“Brady.” “Cal.” “Trotter.” “Nif.” “Tales.” “Kim.” They introduced themselves quickly.

“Just come with us tomorrow,” Tales invited.

I raised an eyebrow. “No exploration tonight?”

“Nah,” Brady’s deep voice rumbled. “Ship’s dark running. Like she’s a robo. Rumor says there’s pirates in the area. They pour on flicks to keep us outta sight. With free booze and snacks for passengers and off-duty crew. Then beddy-bye. ‘S’only for 38 more hours. Cooke Atoll here we come.”

We laughed and joked as we ate good food. And I mean good. I’d never even seen a shrimp before this voyage. I had a plateful of them. And noodles in some sauce with real cream. Veggies weren’t some paste, but looked like tiny, dark green trees. Oh, the fruit dessert. I’d write Sis about it. Sinfully delicious. If I ate like this every night, I’d gain kilos.

“Great food,” Cal commented. “Don’t slight us a bit, even if we’re only working stiffs. So Dekes, where’re you off to from Cooke Atoll?”

“Got accepted into Sector Two, Elevator maintenance, junior electrician journeyman position. Could not believe it. What about y’all?”

Brady, Nif and Tales copped a month gig wailing at a hotel on Cooke Port itself. Cal had a berth on a droid deepsea-mining trawler close to Australia. Trotter’d been accepted for post grad studies at the University Above, on the Wheel. And Kim admitted to bumming until he decided what he wanted to do in life.

“Must be nice!” we all chimed when Kim confessed. He sloughed off our brief envy.

“So how’d you manage a post on the Wheel, Dekes? Heard they’re murder to get.” Cal wanted to know.

“Worked my ass off,” I shook my head. “And a co-op job deepsea apprenticeship in the Marianas last break cinched the deal. Applied and hired same day. Lucky me!”

“Yeah. Steady job up there. Wow. Give my eyeteeth for that,” Cal admitted. “But working my tail off in school. No way man. I’m a straight C student. Loving my free time before the fam biz inhales me. Good luck Dekes.”

The movie wasn’t anything to write home about, my dreams didn’t worry me. I did the ship exploration with my tablemates the next day just to say I saw it. And soon enough we docked. We all said goodbye and good luck.

Although I could have spent days gawking at the super-cargo ships’ robos unloading at the docks, I knew my employers had my ETA. I rubbernecked the whole way, entered the Elevator foyer, smiled and nodded to security, located the ticket wicket and presented my credentials. The machine blinked twice, spit out my ticket and told boarding was in effect now at Gate 8. I scurried, managing to get to the Gate just as the final person in line checked through.

The heavy doors started to close as I pushed my ticket into the slot. They halted, the machine affirmed my passage, time-stamped my ticket with my Elevator doss and ordered me through the doors. My sack banged against my legs as I ran. But I halted, just before I crossed that final threshold. I banged my feet together, scraped my soles on the floor. I needed to kick the dust from Earth from my feet; from my soul, literally. It just felt so necessary.

The doors closed, arrows on the floor lit up, flashing at me to hurry me along. As I strode past each, they extinguished. I entered a lobby-like compartment with an actual person, beckoning me

“Come on. We’re ready to lock down and roll.”

She followed me through the final iris, punched in some combination on the keypad and led the way into the Elevator proper.

I did have time to locate my bunk in the recruit dorm, secure my sack into the assigned locker and freshen up a bit. I hurried, grabbing a window seat before the Elevator passed 300 feet. I didn’t want to miss any of this experience.

I did catch a few hours of shut-eye before we docked at the Wheel three days later. But I begrudged every minute of that. I made friends with a group about my age, all by the window with me. We ate together, right there, speculating what future the Wheel might hold for us. We asked the guide if we might get a peek at the inner cables, see for ourselves how the engineers maintained gravity on the Elevator, but got refused due to some regulation about passenger safety.

I watched Earth get smaller, going through incredible cloud formations, saw a completely circular rainbow, witnessed nightfalls across the ocean and a bit of light pollution from Australia and the populated islands.

I managed to catch a glimpse of the Wheel. For a while it just looked like a dark line across the stars. Took a bit of time to realize those regularly spaced lights weren’t stars. The apartments for employees looked down on Earth; psychology studies showed the view kept homesickness from becoming a major problem.

Finally we docked. Overheads instructed us to take all our belongings to a specific exit. We rushed into the airlock, each one of us determined to be the first of our group to step on the Wheel. We jostled, good-naturedly shoving each other, edging our way to the very front. We totally ignored not only the other, older passengers, but the loudspeaker announcement.

I knew freight got strapped down. It doesn’t move until someone decides when and where it’s moving to. I just forgot to extrapolate that info, using it to determine what happens to people. Nor did anyone else in my group.

Us young uns crowded that door almost panting. We so wanted to be first off. First of our group to step onto the Wheel.

Like right now

We stood there, complete chumps, not even hanging onto anything. The door whooshed opened. We eagerly pushed out, taking those first fateful bounds. Spilling out onto the loading deck.

Yup, we spilled. Everywhere. Tumbling. Bouncing off every single thing in our way, even each other. Arms windmilling. Legs pumping, trying to run. The motions alone propelled us off the floor and up.

Our momentum kept us going forward. Lack of gravity took care of the rest. Up we floated to gently bob against the ceiling.

Maybe if we’d stood totally still. Maybe. I’m gonna check that out one day. But everyone one of us, the younger crowd, had so wanted to be the first to make the Wheel, we hadn’t bothered to listen to instructions.

Laughter erupted from every corner of that big loading dock. I swear everyone who could be, was present. Just to see us newbies embarrass ourselves.

Admittedly, we did look pretty silly bobbing around the lights. Only after I managed to grab on to a light support did I see the humor. There is nothing funnier than a red-faced youth swearing and brandishing fists ineffectively, while flailing mid-air.

“Don’t git yer knickers inna knot,” an older, uniformed male yelled up at us. “We’ll git ya down once we’ve finished unloading. Ya upchuck and ya’ll clean it up later. Stay still to stop yer motion.” I did notice he managed to keep an eye on us while he oversaw several unloading teams.

I stood braced, trajectory vector math swimming in my head. No, I don’t play pool. I know the math behind it, but I never had the inclination to play. That whole bar scene, with its buff males vying through pool prowess for the lithesome female attention. Nope, doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, even if I could’ve afforded it. But I do understand the math behind the shots. In my mind this cavern space seemed the likeliest place for 3-dimensional pool, with solutions in vector math.

I paid great attention to one section of the floor. When it cleared, I turned, put my feet on the ceiling, squatted and dove for a railing. Yes, I undershot. But only a little. I did manage to grab the edge.

Ta-da! I made it, firmly attached to the rail, feet hovering just over the floor.

“Cudda broken yer neck,” the voice attached to the firm grip on my shoulder admonished. “Until yer trained, yer not to try any more bird brained flights. Got it?”

I nodded. He detached what looked like a bungee cord from his utility belt, hooked one end to my belt and one to the railing.

“Stay right there till I come git ya. Don’t need no greenhorn inna way,” he said. His voice softened, “Done well kid.”

I stayed there, toes tucked under the railing base to keep me from floating up, watching the mech suits clanging as their magnets caught and loosed, walk tons of freight off the Elevator. Others, just in red uniforms, shot something from their belts, let go somehow with their feet and spun themselves, to swarm over the growing piles of crates, tying them down. They moved like a well-choreographed dance.

A less-fluid group, shepherded by another uniformed person, clunked by dragging a wheeled freight car. The uniform sang out a ‘left, release, right, release,’ pattern that the group struggled to perform.

In an amazingly short time the empty Elevator signaled its descent to Load Dock with an unbelievable alarm hooting. The air itself seemed to tremble. My ears popped. The walls and floor seemed to shiver for a few nanoseconds until an almost inaudible rumble faded.

Intellectually I know the Wheel is safe. But seeing that Elevator’s leave caused a trickle of fear to drip down my spine. I didn’t quite yearn to be back on Earth.

Only then did I notice our older passengers, the scientists, huddled around where the Elevator passenger exit had been, hanging onto handgrips. And I mean all around the exit. Although they hadn’t floated off to the ceiling, some definitely had started up.

Us younguns hadn’t noticed the handgrips all around the exit, but someone sure informed them. Some even tied themselves to whatever they’d managed to grab on their exodus, now lounged and watched or read while they waited to be fetched. Calm, cool and collected. Enclosed playpens of net enclosed the families.

My group, the young adults, still floated around way up near the lights. Several had been sick. Some violently. Those kids had a pinkish haze surrounding them. When I squinted, it almost looked like moth clusters fluttering around lights.

“Listen up!” the uniformed man who’d belted me to the rail bellowed up at them. “We’re gonna shoot tether lines up at ya. They’re sticky. Don’t touch em. ‘S bugger to git em off flesh. We’ll shoot a packet of wipes up the lines after so’s ya kin clean up yer messes afore we reel ya in.”

He turned to a nearby squad who looked like they were aiming with some kind of crossbow, “Ready. Aim. Fire!”

How can I describe the noise of ten crossbow-appearing, net-slinging tools firing in an enclosed place? Sure this dock was huge. Still, the hzzzt of propellant echoed, sounding like hundreds fired.

Everyone got tagged first volley. They jerked backwards. Several screamed, having immediately forgotten the edict about not touching. Tiny packets whirred up the lines, sticking to the webs.

“Need ya to clean up all yer butterflies,” the sergeant, I knew now from the comments I’d overheard by the shooting squad, yelled. More retching sounds came from above as my group followed their orders. ‘S yer own body fluids. Quit being sissies. Don’t need that smell inna blowers. Move it! On the clock.”

No-one came down until everybody’d cleaned the area. Several times a shooter dragged his caught over to a missed mess. That sergeant peered through binoculars, pointing them out.

In the meantime, our fellow travelers, the older scientists and the few families, climbed into crawlers, disappearing through an iris at the far side of the room.

The lines reeled my compatriots down where the retrieval squad attached them to a flatbed before removing the adhesive net. Once everyone got hauled down and divested of their filthy wipes, the flatbed moved to me. I grabbed onto the side before loosening my bungee cord from the railing. I coiled it before handing it back to the sergeant.

We drove through several hallways and another iris to a green hallway. I felt some gravity return just as the sergeant said, “Disembark. Company dismissed.”

The squad, who had accompanied us this far, scattered off down the opening hallways quickly. We, on the other hand, looked at each other, raising questioning brows to the sergeant.

“This here’s your area men. And ladies,” he added quickly, nodding at me. “Pick a room, use your handprint to claim it and tell the monitor your luggage number. It’ll buzz on arrival. You’ll be collected in about,” he looked at his wristpiece, “two hours. Make yourself comfortable, unpack, read the safety instructions. Whatever. Be ready in two hours.

“You,” he pointed to me, “come with me.”

We didn’t quite swim three hallways over, but he pulled himself along on the handholds spaced at what I believed to be close to a leap apart until we reached in a dark blue, well-lit hallway. He checked his wristpiece before stopping in front of a C1185. “Yers, kiddo. Ya got just less than those two hours to get yer stuff in order. Luggage’s already here. Read the safety instructions, initial ‘em. Map’s on the door and ‘puter on yer desk. Sign on. Comp wristpiece’s on yer desk. Wear it.” He gave me a two-fingered salute before pulling himself away.

I palmed the doorlock. It slid away noiselessly revealing a small sitting room complete with a wall desk, a comfortable looking easy chair, a porthole to Earth, my luggage and another door. The door slid closed behind me as I walked forward to see my whole space. The ‘puter screen on the wall flashed to life, but I ignored it as I stepped into a compact bedroom, complete with a captain style bed, drawers just showing at the bottom edge of a comforter, an overhead shelf with what looked like a netting bundled underneath where it would be in easy reach of a quickly woken sleeper, a built in vanity and another door. Real luxury awaited me here. In front of me, tucked in beside a small sink and commode was a complete deep bathtub/shower enclosure. And none of the water restriction labels I’d heard were a fact of life up here. Wow!

I washed up, signed in, attached the wrist piece and started to stow my belongings. I’d almost finished when my door pinged. “Coming,” I called.

As I neared the door, it opaqued, giving me a view of a stranger; thin, geeky and definitely older than me.

“Dekes?” I heard. “Dekes Ziebert? Senior Journey Electrician Alazia Cummers reporting as escort. Let’s go recruit.”

Together we headed for the mess hall, her telling me everything she considered important. I heard scuttlebutt about my new crew, fun areas of the Wheel, areas to avoid at all costs, hours of work, pay rules, shop steward’s name, where to look for company procedures. In fact she talked nonstop right up until she palmed the mess door. I wouldn’t have been able to hear her after that.

One whole wall was given over to the biggest cafeteria area I’d ever seen. The tables sat on some see-through material with a view of Earth and a slightly curved wall looked out into space.

Alazia led me to the serving area; we grabbed trays and got into line. Above I noticed a list of all the food selections available. I had never seen that much food, let alone this many choices, in my whole life. My mouth drooled in anticipation.

“Don’t be a complete ruze,” Alazia warned. “Newbies right of the Lift stuff themselves so much most end up in Sickbay for the first couple of days. Companies bet on each other’s recruits. Our Comp has the best safety record and the least sick time this month. Don’t wreck our winning streak. The guys’ll never forgive you.”

I forced myself to only take a salad with real greens, one fresh bun with real butter, a half chicken that looked real to me, one scoop of rice pilaf, a sweet pie and a drink. Alazia chose a stew, salad, bun, cake and a drink, so I knew I hadn’t gone overboard.

We headed to a crowded table, Alazia ordering everyone to scooch over and make room for us. She introduced me before digging into her meal. I smiled at everyone, sniffed my dinner once too often while replying to their welcomes causing everyone to laugh and tell me to eat, plenty of time to get to know me once I’d been fed decently for once in my life.

Dinner finished, the gang took me to Comp’s junior’s rec room. Finally, really relaxing, I met everyone present, watched several games of pingpong, and answered a grueling set of questions to establish my creds. I learned the Comp didn’t hire often. Just me this quarter. Listened to half-hearted complaints about the workload and the expectations. Under that I heard the pride.

Lights dimmed before anyone left the room. That’s when I learned we all were housed in the same hallway. ‘Comp req’d this,” Jared informed me. “Thought it’d be better if we all stayed together. But we’s free to socialize with other Comps. Just let the boss know if anyone comes sniffing and telling you their Comp’s better. We hire only the best, train em right, so all the others try to poach anybody who’s selected and trained by us. Got us one great rep up here.”

You know, after a week working here, listening to other Comp’s employees complain during mess, I’m glad I picked this Comp. I’m treated right. Training is more than adequate. Looks like promotions are ability-selected, so’s up to me how fast I get my next ticket and climb the Master’s ladder.

I’ve been here a year now. And no, I’m not homesick. Haven’t been. Not even once. I don’t miss being on Earth, just miss being able to hug my family every now and then. Not like I don’t keep in touch with them. My sis might even get here herself. Referencing a clean-slated family member already established up here offers her credibility.

I can’t even contemplate going back. How can anything on Earth compare with free-fall swimming? Here I can take a 7th-day walk in the hydro-gardens and not worry about gangs. Come to think on it, Earth doesn’t have any public gardens anymore, just concrete parks and smog. Don’t miss that.

I’m at home now, with a constantly changing, gorgeous view of Earth. And I’ve got more than all the comforts of Earth-home. We have skating rinks, swimming pools, dance halls, movie theatres, concerts. You name it, it’s here too. Safer, cleaner, and probably less expensive.

We eat really well here, too. Acres and acres of hydro-gardens provide all our requirements. There’s small farms, forests and meadows where the agro deps raise miniature livestock like cows, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and deer. So we eat real protein.

And really, where else can I fly? Just three levels up, two over, near the Elevators, where they don’t keep Earth-type gravity.

I’m even taking classes for ‘hacking the black’. Eventually I’ll need that ticket for promotion. So why wait?

My Master made sure I got introde to all the eligible guys in our Comp. And I had a tour of the family housing Comp’s set up. Just in case I ever decide one of my mates is good enough material to father a kid of mine.

Was it worth it? All the years of study and things I missed as a kid trying to get myself up here? I’d do it over and over. See, sometimes I stand looking down at Earth through one of the big portholes. And I remember the squalid life I left behind. The overcrowded mega-cities, the day-to-day fight to survive.

I’ll take the Wheel anytime.

*
D.K. Snape has been making up stories all her life. Writing them since she understood crayon should go on the paper, not in her mouth. She prayed to the Muse once. Big mistake. The Muse is lonely. She got bombarded with ideas, daily at least. Now she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to write all the stories down. Not even if she lives to be 300. You can find her only other story, Proton Pursuit, published on Mad Scientist Journal. Her YA book, Moustache on the Moon, part one, Kin Ship will be released soon at SirensCallPublications.com


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