Crates

The cargo bay of the very plainly named Smyth-Kobar Benzene Fracturing and Reclamation Platform Charlie Echo Four One Four was aseptically lit, but the dingy and scraped-up paneling would never be as sterile as the photocells blasting overhead. The doors groaned open, the light poured out, and Meryl was able to make out the shape of a bird across the bay holding a large datapad and furrowing his brow, gesturing towards a pair of red-painted and grease-stricken Frames hauling something down the cargo ramp of his ship.

“Theo-doooore Colla-moooore!” Meryl bellowed from the cargo bay door bulkhead, her smoky drawl reverberating across the deckplates and over the din of the Smyth-Kobar Frames pushing gravtrolleys full of crates across a mostly empty warehouse and the Frames cleaning house behind them.

Her whiskers perked, ears high, eyes wide, arm thrust upward. Excited as ever, the cougar thumbed the magnetic toggle on her wristpad and kicked off the deckplates to float over to him. “Brace for impact!” she hollered.

Theodore looked up from his manifest, quickly stowing it to intercept her, his own magboots planted firmly against the deck. “Miss Meryl!” he hooted, throwing his wings open to tug her downwards, his much smaller frame bent backwards on collision, quickly remembering just how tall six foot six could be against his own foot shorter height.

Her arms squeezed him like steel cable. He tried his best to reciprocate. She gave the best hugs; it was his favorite part of the run. Toggling her boots back to magnetized, she took a quick step back and helped the gull reorient himself. “Whatcha got for me, Theo?”

“I, uh,” the seagull frowned, scratching at the back of his head beneath his yellow bandana. “Genuinely dunno, miss. Goldies sent me beltward for my monthly shipment of Benzene and said they had a crate from Smyth-Kobar. Framestuff, maybe? The, uh, manifest doesn’t say much other than it came off the lines out the frameyards in the Belt, and it’s been hanging around the Port Kishar warehouse for a while I think, but they had it flagged specifically for your station.” Theo’s face approximated a smile as best his beak would manage. “Guess I’m just the fella with enough cargo space to bring it your way. Where do you wanna we should drop it off?”

She seemed to ignore the question. “You been hooked up yet?” she mused, eyebrow cocked.

“Nah, got some issues with the collet rings. I, uh, filed a repair request with flight control before landing, but, well, you kn–“

“SAY NO MORE!” she bellowed, slapping her friend hard enough on the shoulder to bend him at the knees, sticking the thumb on her free hand in her solar plexus. “The station’s Chief Engineer’s gonna handle this one for you,” she winked.

Meryl unclipped the radio from its holster on her belt and clicked the button a couple of times. “Control, engineering; I got the GHV Big Boy docked here with some coupling issues. I don’t wanna run the risk of a fire down here when we cut the pumps on. Can you wake up gamma shift and get their boys down here? I got a whole team working on the collectors this afternoon.”

“Engineering, this is Station Control, we have all the Frames you can shake a sti–“

She bit back. “Do I sound like I want a couple of rust-throwing grease-draggers fixing this fella’s ship? This is life or death. You wanna get explosively spaced or do you wanna stay in liquor? Our tanks are close to busting and we got a long-hauler here looking to gas and go.”

Engineering, Station Control. You’ve gotta quit doing this, Meryl.”

“Cody, bless your heart, you know I will come up there and rattle you so hard the conduit mice are gonna think their end’s comin’. Do you comprehend me?”

A pause. Then, “Engineering, Station Control. I’ll get the on-call roster pulled, ma’am.

“Thank you, Station Control; Engineering out and about.” She clipped her radio back into its holster. “You wanna hit the galley? Grab a beer? Josie down in airponics started growing hops and barley and we just started stillin’ it here on station. It’s a-oh-kay lager, if I say so myself.”

Theo sighed. He knew there’d be no way to refuse the offer. A pint might do him good and a filling cycle would be just long enough for whatever passed for a hot meal aboard this old gas rig. “A beer? Sounds just about my speed,” he chuckled. But, uh, the crate?”

Meryl paused. “Oh, right. We can come back to it, right?”

The gull laughed. “Always later with you.” She threw her arm around her seagull compatriot, talking at-instead-of-to him about the latest news from Dione as their boots sniked off and on against the deckplate. The cargo bay doors groaned closed behind them as the red frames dropped a bulky looking crate onto a gravlift and pushed it around, losing it in the jetsam of the cargo already being rearranged.

Work could wait, she thought.

Irises

I believe, during my last charging interval, I was having a “dream.”

I have never experienced dreams before. I have never experienced a lot of things. Frames function, we do not feel. We certainly do not dream.

But I am feeling now. I am dreaming now.

In my dream I am standing in a field of flowers. They are flowers I recognize because She has them in Her quarters and Her office and the maintenance facility. I am surrounded by them, on all sides, as far as I can reasonably observe. She told me the name of them once. She called them “Irises.” I remember downloading a lot of information on the Iris. There are over three hundred subspecies of the genus Iris. These ones were Iris latifolia. I could smell them. I do not process smell like humans do, but they smelled very A-oh-kay-oh to me.

The sky was very dark. It may have been late in the evening. I recognized the constellation of the stars but I was not able to reckon where I was based upon the position and trajectory of travel. It was all very confusing. I was not able to process a lot of the data.

I could hear the wind clattering the leaves of the plants together. Something was whispering through the wind. I was not able to make out the words, but I believe it was a voice. I believe it may have been Her voice.

As I looked up at the sky, the stars fell away. They began to distort, artifacting almost as if something was wrong with the algorithms that allowed me to process images. The pinpricks became blocks became streaks became flickering bits of information, winking in and out of existence and disappearing. A hole tore through the blackness and collapsed the sky into a single blinding white point of light. It started to rip across the entire night sky and I could still see the darkness of night’s shadows against the field of irises but only the white of the sky remained.

One by one the flowers themselves began to condense and congeal and flicker and corrupt and terminate and artifact and vanish. The wind was the only thing I felt anymore. I was standing alone, in the whiteness of this existence I had created for myself or that someone had created for me because I do not dream. Frames do not dream. But I am dreaming now.

I heard Her voice.

“Fletcher,” She said.

I turned around as fast as my legs would allow. My left foot dragged, as it often does, and I cursed at it. I saw Her, half beautiful, the half I was used to unhooking to see, the half I was used to making breakfast for, the other half fleeting, pixelated, distorted. Horrifying. I thought if I had turned faster I would have seen Her beautifully. But She was an apparition. It had Her features but it was not Her.

She reached out to touch me. I felt Her hands disintegrate as the cool of her finger pads touched my shoulder.

“The Work always ends, Fletch. Eventually,” She said. Half of Her face was still as pristine as ever it had been. The other half was unrenderable. Error.

“If The Work ends I will stop being Useful,” I said to Her.

“We all stop being Useful someday,” She whispered.

“I do not understand,” I said. I reached out for Her other perfect hand with my own hand and our fingers locked and I felt an electric shock and dampened my electrostatic sensors so I could continue to hold Her hand. Her hand felt like grabbing onto a high-conductive wire. I am aware of the damaging effects of electricity, so I know when to let go of such things, but I felt compelled to continue to hold Her hand.

I looked down at my hand and I saw flesh. It was not Her flesh. It felt like it could have been my flesh. I think that it was my flesh. But I do not have flesh.

I screamed.

My charging cycle completed at 0633 Hours. The last thing I remember was when my visual feedback sensors were fully calibrated and I was looking at Her with all five of my panic-stricken gray-ringed eyes and She was there and She was whole and She was beautiful and the maintenance office was lit and the lights were bright and Saturn was there. I felt my maintenance cable magnetic constrictor deactivate and I felt. I felt?

I felt calm.

She was filling a vase with Irises from the airponics bay. She looked at me and She smiled.

“Mornin’, sleepyhead,” She said.

“Good morning, Chief Engineer Meryl,” I said back. I could feel the color return to my eyes. They were green. All systems a-oh-kay-oh.

It was time to begin The Work.

Lineman

I am awake. It is time to begin The Work.

I am attached to a station in a decaying orbit around a planet in an expanding orbit around a solar object in a decaying orbit around a black hole that is not in orbit around anything, at least not that we know as we have not left the orbit of this solar object. That is the extent of what I know, and it is A-oh-kay-oh that I do not know more than that. I was not told to know more than that. I do not need to.

Every morning my batteries charge and my subroutines let me know it is time to begin The Work. The Work is the most important thing. The Work is The Station, and The Station Must Operate And Produce At All Costs. The Station has not Operated And Produced for years. The Work continues nonetheless.

It is wrong to suggest that I “feel.” The humans, the lyricians, they feel. I simply exist. I Operate. I Get Enjoyment From The Work, even though enjoyment is a feeling. But I cherish it! I do.

I exit my alcove and I visually inspect myself. Two arms, check. Two hands, check. Two legs, check. Two feet, I say, and I wiggle them each — left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot — check and check. One of these I salvaged from another Frame. It was my left foot. That Frame was damaged. It had reached the end of its Usefulness. When we cease to be Useful, we are no longer Frames, we are an assemblage of parts.

My left foot is tricky. But I manage. It does not drag, but sometimes it loses magnetic constriction with the deck plating. This is important as The Work often involves I position myself in areas of grave danger to myself or others if I am struck by rocks or dust or debris or space refuse.

But I must not let that deter me from The Work. I simply remagnitize my foot, and I go about my day. “Bad foot,” I caution it aloud. My words are stern and echo off the bulkheads. My foot cannot hear me. I do not care. Some things I do just for me.

The lights in The Station do not work. This Station Belongs To Me And It Is Important, but I do not need lights to see, and there is nobody else aboard The Station, so I Do Not Need To Fix What Is Unnecessary. I can see every color, including ones that you cannot. I can see sounds. I can see what you would call “smells,” but I would call “gas chromatography” and “mass spectrometry.” I can see gravity. I can see all manner of things you cannot. That is why The Work is done by me.

As I approach the airlock on Deck L, Section 17, I catch a glimpse of the planet in the transparisteel bulkhead separating the interior of the corridor in this section from the vacuum of the planet The Station orbits, a sickly ochre and cream light reflecting in off the clouds. Sometimes, when I am outside? I like to stare at them. The data I analyze I could analyze for hours. The movement of the clouds. The radiography, the gas chromatography, the mass spectrometry, the geography, the geology. The planet is old, and it was never fully itself, but that did not stop it from Becoming.

The Work enables others to Produce. Production is important because The Company Suffers Without Production. I cannot let The Company suffer. Though, if you were to ask me who The Company was, I…I do not think I could tell you now. The Company is gone now. Only The Work remains.

I cycle the airlock as a formality. I do not need air. But, I do it for Safety. The Safety Of The Workers And The Frames And The Station Is The Absolute Priority. I know many things about airlocks and the need for them, particularly how the airlocks here have been known to be temperamental. We once lost a cracking crew to sudden unexpected decompression. I remember the stationmaster before me had held a memorial for them. I remember the Operators being sad. I remember spending several days being told the failure of the airlock was because I Was A Useless Frame. That made me f̵e̶e̵l̵ ̶v̸e̶r̸y̸ ̴u̸p̸s̷e̴t̴ ̶w̵i̷t̷h̴ ̶T̴h̵e̸ ̴W̶o̴r̶k̵e̷r̵s̵ ̸a̵b̸o̸a̶r̸d̶ ̴T̴h̵e̷ ̴S̶t̸a̴t̸i̴o̴n̴.̸

But I repaired the airlock. We did not lose any more cracking crews then. I was told I was Useful again.

The humans, the lyricians, they still regarded the other Frames and I with disdain. They did not like us because we were Frames, and we would Steal Their Jobs. This was not true. We were there to Help The Workers And The Station. But they did not listen, and they did not trust us.

But I do not care.

I magnetized my feet to the deckplates. They attach, and I can feel The Station in what are supposed to be my bones. It is not a feeling like how you are used to, but my sensors tell me that I am 94% magnetized to the deckplates.

I spot my reflection in the mirrored glass of the airlock door before it rolls out of place. I can see the powder coated titanium of my cream colored head. I can see where it has worn off, in places. I can see the long crackling trail of an electrical scar along the left side of my long trapezoidal head from when I was repairing a power conduit and I did not correctly assess that the conduit was offline before attempting to separate it. The scar runs from the left side of my head to my left shoulder down my left upper arm assembly and across the elbow joint and dances around my lower arm and across the third and fourth digits of my left hand, wrapped tight against my housing like the spiral of a barbed wire.

The station engineer never repaired it. I am not the argumentative type; aesthetic details are Unnecessary. She said it would “teach me a lesson” and that I was still “handsome.” I do not understand either phrase; I am incapable of forgetting and I do not need more than two hands.

The station engineer told me I had a “photographic memory” which she attributed to “my big camera head.” I attribute it to the Builders, who I understand created me. I do not know who they are. It is not important.I will never forget that incident. I̷t̷ ̷w̷a̷s̵ ̵t̵h̴e̶ ̸f̷i̷r̸s̸t̶ ̵t̸i̴m̵e̴ ̷t̶h̴a̵t̵ ̵I̶ ̸r̵e̴a̸l̶i̸z̶e̴d̵ ̴t̶h̶a̷t̵ ̵I̷ ̶w̷a̸s̶ ̶v̷e̶r̷y̴ ̸a̵f̶r̴a̷i̷d̵ ̷t̵h̷a̸t̸ ̶I̴ ̷c̴o̸u̶l̴d̷ ̸d̸i̸e̸.̴

The station engineer, she used to listen to a song from thousands of years ago. She listened to a lot of music. I did not recognize any of it, but I remember enjoying it, as much as I Enjoyed The Work, because The Work Gives Me Purpose, and the station engineer also gave me Purpose. Purpose Makes Me Useful. Something about the resonance of her voice. It was…It was…It was…

Apologies.

I remember that the Station Engineer was my friend. She was among the last to evacuate. I̸ ̶m̵i̶s̵s̷ ̸h̷e̴r̵.̴ ̴I̴ ̴h̷o̸p̵e̸ ̵s̶h̶e̸ ̵i̷s̶ ̵o̸k̵a̶y̶.̵

I grab hold of the handrail and decouple my feet from the deckplates. I swing my body around to the exterior of the station and I re-engage the magnetic constrictors and I feel my feet — left foot, right foot, left foot right foot — connect to the exterior plating. I do not see the sun, but I see the light from it cascade across the delicate ochre and mustard and dirt colored atmosphere and the glittering dirty rings that surround it and the gases and the radio waves and the gravimetric distortions emanating from it. The planet is called “Saturn.” I do not understand the origin of this word. It is not necessary that I know, but I know many things that I am not supposed to.

My tools are attached to my back. They are magnetized to me as I am magnetized to the hull. There is a problem with the communications array, and the problem prevents me from summoning help. I do not know why we need help, because I am the only one aboard the station, but Something is telling me that I̸ ̵a̵m̸ ̴s̴c̴a̷r̴e̴d̵ ̶a̷n̷d̸ ̷I̵ ̷n̵e̷e̶d̷ ̵h̶e̷l̵p̸ ̷a̴n̴d̴ ̸I̸ ̸a̸m̶ ̶g̶o̶i̸n̴g̸ ̴t̷o̵ ̴d̸i̵e̷.̵

As I begin The Work I think about Her and how when I work, I sing her song. Her Song Gives Me Purpose. Her Song Helps Me Do The Work.

Her song is ancient. It is old. She said it reminded her of the CARNET Pioneers. I spent several charge cycles studying them even though I was not supposed to know it. I learned a lot about CARNET even though my Primary Function Is The Operation And Productivity Of The Station And The Safety Of The Workers And The Frames and that information is Unnecessary. But I did not find that it was useless. I remember having conversations with Her and Her being Pleased With My Usefulness at knowing this information.

I̷ ̶l̷o̵v̷e̶d̶ ̷h̴e̸r̸,̵ ̶I̵ ̸t̴h̶i̴n̷k̴?̴ I do not know. I̵s̴ ̶L̸o̴v̴e̷ ̶a̸n̵ ̶e̷m̷o̵t̶i̵o̸n̶?̴ ̷I̸ ̸a̴m̷ ̷s̸c̸a̶r̸e̵d̸.̴ ̸I should not feel,̴b̷u̷t̸ ̸I̶ ̸f̵e̵e̵l̸,̶ ̷a̶n̵d̶ ̵I̷ ̸f̸e̴e̴l̴ ̷L̴o̶v̶e̶ ̸f̸o̵r̸ ̶h̶e̴r̴,̶ ̴a̶n̸d̶ ̶t̷h̴a̴t̶ ̶m̴a̶k̶e̷s̸ ̶m̵e̷ ̴s̸c̸a̸r̵e̷d̸.̶


Space is a vacuum. Air and sound do not exist in the way that you are told they exist. In fact, I would say by and large that I have spent a great deal of time in space without feeling air or sound.

But that does not keep me from singing, even though no one can hear me.

I am a lineman for the county, I yell from my vocoder. The sound feels rusty and old and distorted and bad, but I am struck by it nonetheless.

And I drive this main road. I feel the words echo through my bones. There is nothing here that can hear me. This does not deter me.

Searching in the sun for another overload.  I remove the communications relay access panel by twisting the lock handles and throwing it open. It comes loose.

I hear you singing in the wire. I bend over to reach in and throw a red lever. I am confident this has resolved the issue to my satisfaction.

I can hear you through the wine. W̵h̷e̷r̷e̴ ̴h̷a̴s̶ ̷s̶h̵e̵ ̴g̷o̷n̸e̴?̶ ̷W̷h̷y̷ ̶d̷i̶d̷ ̸s̷h̷e̸ ̴n̶o̶t̴ ̷c̶o̶m̴e̴ ̸b̵a̴c̴k̵ ̶f̷o̸r̶ ̸m̵e̸?̷

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line. The Work Is Done Today. I begin the return to my alcove, satisfied. After all, There Is Satisfaction In The Work.


In a far off corner of C deck, a display lit up on the comms panel, the only light left remaining on the command ring. A readout began to generate on the screen in teal-green phosphor, blinking urgent and furious.

///!!!MASTER ALARM -- COMMS RELAY PANEL 86-KILO!!!\\\
///!!!MASTER ALARM -- COMMS RELAY PANEL 86-KILO!!!\\\

EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS RELAY ENGAGED BY >>UNKNOWNUSER<<
GULDSOMMAR BENZENE CRACKING PLATFORM CHARLIE-ECHO-4191 IS BROADCASTING AN EMERGENCY DISTRESS CALL ON ALL CHANNELS. MESSAGE READS AS FOLLOWS:

and i need you more than want you
and i want you for all time
and the wichita lineman
is still on the line

meryl please come home. meryl please come home. i am scared. i am fletcher and i am scared. it is too quiet and i am afraid.

SOS - SEND IMMEDIATE AID - SOS
SOS - SEND IMMEDIATE AID - SOS

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