Presented for your enjoyment, the second installment of a short story featuring the origin of one of my central characters in Exodus: Empires at War. I will present this story in four parts. Anyone interested in reading the story in its entirety can go to my website, Imagination Unlimited, or directly to the story page at Exodus Shorts. The story can be downloaded in Word, PDF or Kindle format. Or you can see all of my books at my Amazon Book Page.
The factory was working at full swing when Cornelius reported for his shift. The robots on two of the lines were turning out aircars, moving the vehicles from station to station to have parts added, then nanowelded by a spray of microscopic robots, leaving not even a mark to show where the new part had been attached. Men sat in the booths overlooking the floor, supervising the work robots. Each could only watch two of the bots at a time because of the Man in the Loop Accords.
Not that these robots are likely to rip themselves out of the floor and grow the processing power to be a threat, thought Cornelius as he reported to his booth, nodding at the guy they had hired to take Parker’s place. Not his fault, he thought of the new guy, who just seemed happy to have a job. Still, Cornelius couldn’t help but feel some resentment for the replacement who had taken the place of his old friend.
Cornelius sat at his station and started up his board. The ticker said he still had five minutes before his lines started up. He was in charge of the same two robots today that he was every day, something that made the job a little boring. His would nanoweld and connect the control runs to the lift fans that the newbie’s robots would lower into place. He just had to make sure that the robots were running within parameters, and watch that no mistakes got through his part of the lines.
The buzzer beeped and the line started up. He could look forward to ten hours of watching aircars rotate in front of him, of his robots performing the same tasks over and over. Three days a week he sat here, eating his lunch at the board, not even taking bathroom breaks, as his nanites were programed to delay bladder fill while he was at work, only allowing enough fluid out that he could take care of in his two ten minute breaks. It was monotonous. Or it should have been, except when the bot on the three line started to overheat, and stopped making all the proper connections.
“Shit,” said Cornelius, hitting the button that shut down the entire line. That was considered serious action, but he had been at the job long enough to feel confident that when he did it, it needed to be done. He shunted his other robot off to the newbie, whose name he couldn’t even remember. It was no use shutting down both lines, and the newbie could watch two robots on line four while Cornelius looked into the situation.
First he checked the computer readout for the robot, which told him absolutely nothing about why it was malfunctioning, other than that the actuator of one of the arms was hot. There was nothing for it but to go on the line and give the unit a look. If he could fix it he would. If not, he would call in those who could.
The line was always noisy. It was easy to forget while sitting in the insulated booths, but this was heavy machinery, lifting large parts into place while assembling vehicles. It could also be dangerous. The three line, the one he was approaching, was still, but he had to walk over the four line to get to it. Cornelius could see why robots frightened some people, tales of the revolt two centuries before notwithstanding. The robots of four line were moving quickly, and even with built in failsafes they could still snag the unwary.
Cornelius kept a close eye on four line while he walked three. Vehicles were still being put together over there, and the line would assemble hundreds of them in a day. Three line was a row of unfinished vehicles that were not going anywhere at the moment. He stopped in front of the recalcitrant machine and put his hand on the arm in question. It was hot to the touch, and he noticed that a thin line of smoke was rising from a port. He stuck a multitool into the port and turned it, and the arm opened up along the seam that appeared. And more smoke poured out of the opening, along with a lick of flames.
What the hell, thought the man as he saw what looked like an oily rag burning. With a thought he tapped into the factory com system and sent a situation report to management. It doesn’t look like this problem is going to be easily solved, he thought. They could clean up the rag easily, and replace whatever parts were damaged by the fire. But this looked like something deliberate, and that meant this would be investigated, with all the hassle that entailed. So much for a quiet day at work, thought Cornelius, knowing that he would be investigated as well.
* * *
“Would Milady like another cup of tea?” asked Katlyn, holding a tray with pot, sugar and cream. The woman she was questioning, a guest of the Baroness, performed the difficult task of looking up and looking down her nose at the servant at the same time.
“Yes, I think I will,” answered the woman, holding up her cup.
Katlyn put the tray on the table and picked up the teapot to pour, her eyes glancing at the baby in the lap of another guest. The little girl was smiling and laughing, and waving her pudgy little arms. And why can’t I have one like you to hold, thought Katlyn as she poured the tea. The baby was distracting, and she wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing.
“You stupid little whore,” yelled the well dressed guest as hot tea spilled onto her dress.
Katlyn looked down in horror, dropping the teapot to land on the carpet. She scrambled to get to her knees and picked up the pot, watching the darkening stain of liquid spread across the fabric.
“I am so sorry, Marta,” said the Baroness, her cold eyes glaring at the servant who had burned her guest.
“I am sorry, ma’am,” said Katlyn, putting the pot back on the tray, then snatching up a cloth and moving to wipe down the woman’s dress.
“You stay away from me,” said Marta, knocking Katlyn’s hand away.
“Leave us, Katlyn,” said the Baroness, pointing at the door to the kitchen. “Wait for me, and I will be in to talk to you shortly. And send Kimberly out to serve us.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said a dejected Katlyn, picking up the tray and carrying it to the kitchen, listening as the women talked about how clumsy and stupid she was. She was near to tears as she entered the kitchen, but remembered to send a com call to Kimberly, summoning her to the kitchen.
“What’s wrong?” asked the other servant as she entered the kitchen and saw the tears on Katlyn’s face.
“I screwed up, Kimberly,” said Katlyn, feeling a sense of almost hysteria coming over her. “I was paying attention to the baby and not to what I should be doing, and poured hot tea on one of the Baroness’ guests.”
“It will be alright,” said the other woman, putting together another tray. “Just calm down, and it will be OK.”
Katlyn could tell from the expression on Kimberly’s face that the other woman didn’t think it would be OK. She was just saying words she thought might calm Katlyn.
Kimberly came in and out of the kitchen several times over the next hour, while Katlyn sat in a chair and waited to hear the verdict from the woman who employed her. It seemed to take hours, but eventually the Baroness came into the kitchen, her cold blue eyes fixed on Katlyn like lasers.
“How dare you injure one of my guests,” she said, walking over to the quickly standing young woman.
“Was she burned badly?” asked Katlyn in a panicked voice.
“Nothing that nanites can’t take care of,” said the Baroness, putting her hands on her hips. “That’s not the point, you little common born trash. You caused distress to my guests, and I will not have that. You are no longer in my employ. You will leave this house immediately, never to return.”
“Please,” said Katlyn, dropping to her knees and grasping at the employer’s dress. “No. It won’t happen again.”
“No,” said the Baroness, taking a step back and glaring down at the girl. “It will not. At least not by you. There are a thousand girls out there waiting for your position. And one of them will have it. Now leave, before I call security to escort you out.” The woman turned and started to walk away, then spun back around on her heel. “On second thought, I don’t want you absconding with any of the silverware.”
A few moments later a large man in the uniform of a liveried security appeared and dragged a shocked Katlyn off, adding insult to injury. She walked in staggering steps to the nearest bus line and caught the next one to the central station. She stared straight ahead the entire trip, not even taking in the scenery from on high like she normally did. What am I going to tell Cornelius, she thought. They would still do well enough on his income, but she wanted to feel like she was contributing to their progress up the financial ladder. Now she was to be relegated to the role of stay at home housewife, and without even any children to look after. She cried her way to the central station, and then on the elevated train home, where she sat in the living room and cried some more, waiting for her husband to come back from work.
* * *
“And then they escorted me from the manor like a common criminal,” stammered a crying Katlyn as Cornelius held her in his arms.
Bastards, he thought of the people who had caused her such trauma. And all because she made a simple mistake, spilling some tea on her betters. Betters, he thought with a flare of anger. As if any of those people are actually better than we are. Cornelius knew he had above average intelligence. He had been tested back in primary school. But a commoner needed much more than above average to compete with the nobles for the slots needed for higher education, at least on New Detroit. Maybe if we were on Jewel, or a University rich planet like Avalon. It was said that even those with slightly above average intelligence scores could attend a University on those planets, if they had the proper work ethic.
He wiped a tear away from Katlyn’s face, looking into the eyes of the woman he loved. So she’s not as bright as some, he thought, studying her classically beautiful features. That’s alright. I’m here to do the thinking for us. “Look. I’ll talk to my father and see what he can do. He has the ear of the Duke, after all. So what’s the word of some damned Baroness?”
“You really think he’ll be able to do anything?” she asked, sniffling.
Hell no, thought her husband, nodding his head. You’re not important enough. “Of course. Look what he did for me.”
Katlyn’s eyes unfocused for a moment, the sign that she was accessing some information. “Your sister will be here in an hour,” she said, standing up from the couch. “And I don’t have anything prepared.”
“You get cleaned up,” said Cornelius, giving her a quick hug. “I’ll order a delivery.” As the last word left his mouth he jacked into the local net and looked over the menus of the local delivery joints. With another thought he ordered Chinese and authorized a debit from his account.
“You look beautiful,” he told his sister as she walked in the doorway with her husband an hour later. Natasha did look beautiful, with a glow to her face he had never before seen. Her husband, Larry, alternated between smiles and an expression of worry.
Natasha took off her coat, and even in the baggy clothing she was wearing it was obvious that she had gained weight, most of it…
“Are you pregnant?” asked Katlyn after hugging Natasha, then holding her back with hands on the other woman’s arms.
“I am,” said Natasha with a smile, her eyes taking on the worried look of a caged animal.
“How did you guys get a reproduction license?” asked Cornelius, suspicion raising its ugly head. “You’re younger than I am, Larry, and I’m looking at slim to none chances.”
“We, we didn’t get a license,” said Larry in a hushed voice, as if afraid that he would be overheard. “I had a friend who reprogramed our nanites. Made us both fertile. And then, it was just God’s will and nature.”
“Are you fucking crazy,” yelled Walborski, fear and anger warring with each other in his feelings. “How in the hell did you expect to get away with that? What were you thinking?”
“We wanted a baby,” said Natasha, as if that answered everything.
“We decided to trust in God,” said Larry, looking upwards. “He will see us through this.”
“Christ,” cursed Cornelius, looking at the idiot his sister had married. He turned his glare on his sister. “And how is God going to hide the fact that you are pregnant? Or the child, after you give birth, if it goes that far?”
“God will protect us,” said Larry, trying to smile.
And you’re still freaked out about what’s going to happen, thought Cornelius. Despite your assurances that your God will take care of you.
“Why don’t we eat?” said Katlyn, gesturing toward the dining room, where the Chinese delivery was laid out.
Yeah, why don’t we, thought Cornelius. A last good meal for my sister and brother-in-law.
The meal was mostly eaten in silence. Cornelius kept staring at Larry, blaming him for everything that was about to happen to his sister. If they’re lucky they’ll just get a forced abortion, and a maybe some incarceration time in a work camp. That didn’t happen very often. There was always the possibility of mind wipe, and his sister would not know him, and he would really not know her, only her physical appearance.
“How in the hell could they do that?” he complained to Katlyn after their guests had left. “What were they thinking?”
“That they wanted a child,” said Katlyn with a far away look. “Just like most of us.”
“It’s against the law. We are on a population controlled planet. People just can’t have unlimited children, unless we want the overcrowding they were said to have had on old Earth. I for one like some wilderness area to roam around in.”
“And you only get that because of your father,” said Katlyn in an angry voice. “The rest of us have to make do with the parklands they allow us common folk to use.”
“It’s a job, honey,” said Cornelius, feeling a bit put off by her accusation that he was privileged to hunt the wilderness, something the average citizen couldn’t. “It pays for things like this apartment, and our aircar. I had nothing to do with being the child of a gamekeeper.”
Katlyn got up from the couch, glared down at him with a pout, and stomped away to the bedroom. Dammit, thought Cornelius, ordering the trivee on with a thought. I just can’t win today. He knew he would have to watch some of the vee, and let Katlyn fall asleep. Otherwise he would have to endure the tense silence of her laying with her back to him. So he sat and steamed, while the trivee recreated the scene of a popular comedy, something he was not the least bit interested in.