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.

Late

It’s 4:18.

Meyer rested with his arms behind his back, propping himself up, lit cigarette haphazardly nocked between his fingers. He brought it to bear against his lips, falling backwards and spilling himself across the crabgrass-laden median in the parking lot. He laughed at himself, a slurring, miserable laugh.

He was waiting for the ride back to his apartment.

He’d been drinking.

He was alone.

– – –

The alarm, more shrill than usual, cracked across his ears like the sound of a thousand blaring war horns. The mid-morning sunlight, strips of overwhite light cutting through the vertical blinds, hit him right square in the eye.

His left ear twitched. He swiped lazily at his cellphone, doing nothing to quiet it but knocking it to the floor instead. It clattered across the hardwood and into the laundry.

Meyer rolled over onto his back with a heaving groan, cowering in the crook of his elbow as the light bounced across his body. He stayed that way for a moment, mind slowly adjusting to the fact that he needed to be awake despite the overwhelming signals coming from his body to call in sick. He’d screwed up, again. Too hard on a Thursday, he whined internally.

The phone’s alarm did not shut off. He didn’t care. He stumbled to the bathroom anyway, cranking the shower as high as it could go. He left the fan off and sank to the bottom of the stall, sitting there in the nude, letting the hissing of the shower drown out the alarm and the hangover and the light from the bedroom window and the awful smell of vomit in the back of his sinus.

– – –

He pulled a dirty sports t-shirt over his head. Rifled through his underwear drawer and found a pair of boxer briefs he hadn’t worn yet. Pulled a pair of jeans out of his laundry hamper and tugged them on. Shoved his feet into a pair of slip-on skate shoes; he didn’t have any clean socks and it was mid-summer so it wouldn’t have mattered.

He leaned down at the laundry pile and grabbed his phone. He turned off the alarm and checked the time, and if his fur could have gone any whiter, he would have turned invisible.

He was very late.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he grumbled, thrusting the device in his back pocket. “She’s gonna kick my ass this time, no doubt about it.” He shoved his wallet haphazardly into his pocket with a handful of change and wadded-up bills.

Palming the keys off his side table, Meyer was halfway out the door before he remembered his glasses.

He nearly forgot to lock the door.

He was on the bus towards the music store within five minutes, barely keeping himself from being one of those people that catches a mouthful of exhaust fumes.

– – –

“You know what time it is, Brad?

It took exactly one second after the door chime finished its job before Meryl bellowed in the general direction of the front of the store.

Meyer winced, partly from the hangover and partly from the shame. “Y-yeah, s-sorry.”

“Whatever.” She rounded the counter, scratching under her ears, yawning a bit. Her mottles shifted like specks of red wine vinegar in bread oil. “I need you on the phone with the repair center. They’re slacking. I got parents blowing up my phone because I haven’t had anyone to answer calls or man the counter for the last two hours, Brad.

“Meryl, I’m sorry, I know, I didn’t get up unt–”

“Get coffee, get to work, and when I’m done catching up from the two hours of balancing the books I missed covering your shift, we can talk about how passing out in an Applebee’s parking lot off mozzarella sticks and rum punch made you late.”

Meyer froze. “H-how did y-”

She looked at him, eyes wide, brow bent in frustration, drawing a circle in the air around her own muzzle. He clasped his hands over his own.

“And next time when you clean yourself up, wash your face,” she scowled as she pivoted back to the office.