Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
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Cellarman

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt


There are all kinds of ways to earn a living, legal or otherwise, and no place better to do it than Colony, a world of factories, mines and chemplants. But if you've spent the last ten years of your life dodging slice beams in the Andrex Rebellion or fought hand-to-hand with Cosax machine men in the jungles of Swampworld it's pretty damn hard to settle down behind a desk all day keying datatapes and running to fat. So I'm what everyone here calls a cellarman. I hunt bugs and other nasty things interfering with the smooth operation of the mines and factories on this planet.

When they dispatched me to Excon that morning it looked pretty much like a routine call. I hadn't heard much about the place except that they had a lot of labor problems and strikes before old man Forsyth took over and somehow got everything running smooth.

I stood in the waiting hall letting my armpits dry and enjoying the coolness after the desert sunbake outside. Someone had dropped a few creds on the furnishings. Plenty of speerwood and brasse. Should be able to handle the bill if I found charworms eating the plasilation inside the walls or zippos scampering from vents in the front office, scaring the panties off the secretaries.

"Good morning sir, and welcome to Excon, the planet's leader in prefabricated chemsteel girders and industrial polysheet. Is there something I can help you with?" the receptionist greeted me. She was a nice little model IV, great legs encased in a tight blue dressuit and spun gold hair. I later learned there weren't many andrexes at Excon. They had found a cheaper way.

"Yeah, I'm from Squash-M Pest Control. I have a work request from a Mr. Smith."

"Oh yes, he's the company coordinator. Let me buzz him for you."

"Thanks."

It wasn't long before he stepped from the lift. Right away I recognized him despite the tailored exec suit which clashed badly with a dwarf body and a flushed, leathery face. Major Quann, in person.

The Asteroid Wars, back in '29. He was my commanding officer on Solitaire before he sold us out and went over to the Zeroids. All the months I spent in the Zeroid concentration camp I fantasized of the day I would meet up with him in some appropriate place like the back of a spacebar or on some lonely walkramp. I heard that after the war he went underground, working for the Orodi Smuggling Lords. So what was a dudu like Quann working for a legit company like Excon?

"You from Squash-M? Good. I Mr.Smith," he announced, snatching the work request from my hand. Obviously, he didn't recognize me. Of course, it was a long time ago and I was just another pretty face behind a blaster. "We have trouble in machine room techs tell me. Little grey things like so, make comm and lights not work. Many in machine room."

"Sounds like you have wirebugs. Pretty routine industrial pest on Colony .They like to nest in the communication boxes and eat insulation from the optic lineals." This brought me back to the reality that I had a job to do and business did come before pleasure. There was plenty of time to sort out the little details of what time the good Major got off work and what would ease some of the scar tissue on my back and in my mind. Plenty of time.

"You fix?"

"Not too much of a job. Where's the expansion point for the infestation?"

"Hah?"

"Where are the bugs coming from?"

"They on level B, under assembly plant. You follow wall readouts." He peered up at me with a kind of uneasy suspicion. "How long you be down there to fix?"

"Depending on the roosts, usually about an hour." I caught sight of that model IV receptionist smiling at me from behind her speakwrite. She just had to be the deluxe Beta 6 unit with thermal skin and all the options. I had to smile back.

"One hour to finish. Good. If job take longer you talk to plant manager, Level G."

"Will do, Mr.... Smith."

"You check back when done. Not forget."

"Right."

I lugged my toolbox past the still smiling receptionist. Vox, that Model IV did have nice legs.

####

I'll say this about Excon, their plant did stink. I got a whiff coming down the warehouse lift and it ripened to a tangible presence in the steam and bustle of the assembly floor. The nearest I could place it would be the aroma of dead cats soaking in a drum of plastitolulene.

I took nosefilters from my belt and working them up my nostrils checked the place out. It was a great operation. I watched the extruder load the lines creaking all about me and the white uniformed workers moving through the vapor from long celon dip tanks. Up in the murk of overhead scaffolding I noticed all the induction fans had been shut off. That wouldn't help the stink problem, whatever it was.

I found the ramp and followed it down to the machine room. The smell got a lot worse, nipping at the eyes. It was quieter at this level, and darker too. Rows of vacuum wheels and pressure engines ranged out of sight in the gloom relieved by the yellow glow from wall bars. Power cables hung like creepers in a humid, throbbing jungle. There was a pattering of feet under a machine, then silence. Wirebugs? Maybe.

I slid my charged particle gun from its holster and checked the clip gauge. Then the meter on my lightstick. Both fully charged. I set the toolbox down by the railing and from inside clipped two packs of sonic lugs to my belt. It was an old joke on Colony that the average cellarman hauled enough weaponry to arm three Peacemen.

We had to be. Colony was the industrial heart of the system. We had carpeted every kilometer with weapons forges, neotextile plants, chem dumps, mines and fusion domes. All this exposure to chemicals and odd types of radiation over the last century did a lot of funny things to the native animal and insect life. You could say they just adapted to a new environment.

Like eels breeding in silos of waste oil. Slime blobs feasting on concrete walls. Thermites crawling into motors and munching the cages from speed bearings.

Sometimes they got big and nasty. Claws and suckers lunging from a stack of crates to drag some screaming warehouseman back into the shadows for a bedtime snack. I remember the flock of hairy nightmares roosting up in the loft of the Sandcrawler Fabrication Building. They'd swoop down on some girl soldering microbars, carry her high above the transport dock and dump her. Sort of like watching seagulls drop clams on the rocks. Then they'd flutter down, suck up the spillage. Really hard on employee morale, I hear.

The lightstick beam wandered over the concrete floor. It was crisscrossed with the little splayfeet tracks of wirebugs. Plenty of them. I got to work placing boxtraps in likely places throughout the room. I could see flocks of them scurrying from the path of my lightstick. Wirebugs themselves are fairly harmless, unless you feel like shoving a hand down a brood hole.

I placed the last of the traps and closed up my toolbox. By morning they'd all be lured inside by the scent and vaporized.

A sign swam into the lightstick. PUMP ROOM. Below it was a steel trapdoor held in place by a large lockbar. That's funny, I thought, fingering the lock. Here was another level below the machine room and another possible source of wirebug infestation. Why didn't they have me check it out? Maybe they forgot to mention they had a pump room. Or maybe someone didn't want me to check it out. Mr. Smith alias Major Quann.

I flicked the lightstick onto the lock and turned the frequency to red load. Steel began to boil under the beam, molten drops running across the hatch like ball bearings, hissing malevolently in the dark. I worked my fingers under the edge and after some real sweating got it pried up and clanged back against its hinges. Immediately a swarm of wirebugs fled from the shaft, gushed around my boots like dirty water and vanished into the shadows.

The shaft going down into the pump room was black as a drainslug's colon and made the stink in the assembly plant and machine room smell like a spring wind blowing across a field of syberines. It seemed to push through my nosefilters and scorch my eyes.

This was something new. No factory I had ever squashed a wirebug or blasted a mine flapper had smelled this bad. I eased out my particle gun and carefully climbed down the ladder until I was standing on the floorplates.

The pump squatted like a huge spider among a tangle of thick conduits reaching out of sight. Under feeble blue lights I could make it out as an older model Phase Three Circulator. Pretty silent for an old girl, though, a nice regular sighing, like a sleeping ogre. I lifted my lightstick and shone it around over pipes, cables and random piles of equipment shrouded in dust.

Nothing. No sign of leakage that I could see and the stench was giving me the starwarp of all headaches. I clambered up the railing and pulled open the inspection hatch. Just under the lid the celon swirled like a silent black lake. A shroud of vapor dripped over the lip, causing the skin on my hands and face to tingle. This was it, where the smell was coming from.

Something was polluting the celon in the pump, the lines and the big dip tanks in the plant. They needed to get their chemical boys down here fast, take some samples-

There was a frantic splash and something exploded from the liquid to grab me by the front of my vest. It looked like a huge black leech, its eyeless face a mass of spines and jerking antennae. I threw myself back from the lid, trying to shake it

off but it had a deathgrip with those pincers. Thrashing madly, it was slowly dragging me through the hatchway. I clutched the upper railing against the silent immense strength of the thing, not daring to free one of my hands for a grab at my particle gun.

There was a frothing of liquid inside the pump chamber and I saw a horde of these leech things splashing around, trying to push their way past their shipmate and get those madly scissoring pincers into me. It looked like chow time for sure.

I managed to get a knee up against the lip and using this as leverage, grabbed the hatch cover and slammed the lid across it. That did it. It gave a squirm, took a snap at my face and fell back among its friends. Another second and I had the hatch shut and the locks snapped tight.

I steadied myself against the ladder, wiping a sleeve over my sweaty forehead. Well, this was a whole new job but not too much more expensive than a wirebug infestation. All I had to do was get them to shut down the system, pump the celon through a filter into a holding tank where I could take care of these babies with a voltage grenade or other goodie from my bag of tricks. Time to see the plant manager and arrange it. No big case. Or so it seemed at the time.

####

Taking the tube to the upper office levels was like warping to another planet. Plenty of light and clean air, no noise or need for nosefilters. I walked in the door and into the bright smile of another model IV receptionist.

"Good morning, sir, and welcome to Excon, the planet's leader in prefabricated chemsteel girders and industrial polysheet," she announced cheerfully. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"Sure you can. I'd like to see the plant manager." I had to say this about Excon; they certainly had good taste in andrexes. This one was a perky brunette squeezed into a pink bodysheath.

"You must mean Mr. Herzog. Say, aren't you the cellarman... excuse me, the pest control expert Mr. Jones called in?"

"You mean Mr. Smith, don't you?"

"Of course, how silly of me."

"Right. Now where can I find this Mr. Herzog?" I asked, checking out the big office. Then I noticed something. There weren't any people. All I could see was empty desks and chairs but with the readout screens lit and running.

"What happened here, has everybody gone to an early lunch or something?"

"Oh no, we no longer use humans in our administration. All our departments; Sales, Billing, records and all that. Everything has been put on automatic."

I looked out across the empty desks and flickering viscreens. "How long ago did this happen?"

"My, let me think. Mr. Forsyth authorized the dismissals about a year ago."

"You're saying this whole show is being run by Forsyth and a roomful of machines?"

"Just what do you mean by that?" The bright smile abruptly became a pout.

"Well, it's sort of unusual..."

"I know what you mean. You think I'm just another piece of machinery around here, like a letter sealer or a compbank."

"Not exactly..."

"Let me tell you I may be constructed of chemsteel and protoflesh but I'm just as good as any human you're likely to see. And may I tell you more woman than you've ever met although I'm not about to prove it because I'm sure you're not my type."

"Look, I didn't..."

"And I'm definitely not attracted to walking armories covered in dust and smeared with oil. So don't try asking me out. I don't care how big and blonde you are or how cute you look when you roll your eyes and sigh with exasperation."

"I apologize! I sincerely take back anything I have unknowingly said to offend you." Andrex in need of routine

emotional circuit tuneup. I've seen this happen when they get overworked. "Now might I humbly ask where Mr. Herzog is hiding?"

The pout sucked back a bit. "Room 110, just down the hall. You can't miss it."

"I thank you."

####

I wasn't prepared for Herzog or his office. That curvy little andrex should have tipped me off. I was standing on an apple-green carpet emblazoned with a huge set of red lips and protruding tongue. The maniac jangling of an Eutrusian sitar was coming from somewhere and the walls were littered with pop music holograms and incomprehensible murals. I took a cautious sniff. The air was loaded with the sour, oily smell of dhung. But the plant manager was nowhere to be seen.

A fountain of smoke suddenly lifted from behind a desk. I leaned over to see a figure in a purple velvetex coverall sprawled on his back, teeth clenched around an ornamental dhungpipe.

"Ah... Mr. Herzog?"

A pair of muddy eyes flipped open and focused. He lurched up and steadying himself on the back of his chair offered a limp hand.

"Hey hey hey. Come down and see go shipmate. It's tight all round and do glad from here to Syron Three. What do this earthbrother coming on lightdrive fine for you?"

"Yeah... I'm from Squash-M Pest Control and I was called in to handle a wirebug infestation you were having in your machine room. Well, that was routine and easily treated. But there's another --"

"So come and go easy so and settle your tailsection chairtime while I stand myperson down." He snickered and jabbed the stem of the pipe at me, nearly dinging me in the eye. "Like a crash, spacebrother? Good gross. Right off the jumpship didly up on Spiros path from the sacred D. No twist my lip, harpsangel time." He slouched in his seat, dhungsmoke wrapping him in his own fogbank.

"The wirebugs aren't your only problem down level. You have some kind of mutant life form breeding in your pump reservoir," I explained carefully, wondering how much was getting past the dhung. "I'm no chem biologist but it seems to me that the mutant's body or body waste is reacting with the tank celon. That's where you get that smell."

Herzog seemed to be staring at a nonexistent object to my right. "Big topside earthbrother fanned coins on your easypath down to shoo wirebug spacebrothers to far slipschute phase nine. What your lids flutter in pump res no problemwise."

"Let me run this past you again. Your pump tank and probably your whole pipe system on level B is crammed with the nastiest little squorks you ever laid eyes on. And if you don't believe me, let's take a little trip downlevel and I'll let you stick your head in a certain hatch."

"Hey hey, spacebrother. Make go pass on your happy gland this pumproom readout. Maybe later we can zabo on a true do on bad passing gas trouble down pump scene. Maybe later, spacebrother." He exhaled smoke at the ceiling and closed his eyes. "You just track your magsoles zippo to worldshine without and we kiss your payman company coming on strong from the lightship of smiles."

"Look, Herzog, It's only going to take--" But the plant manager was on his way back to the hideous carpet. He tilted sideways and still grinning around his dhungpipe, vanished behind the blotter.

So this was the finish to my job at Excon. Just turn in my bill to the front desk and leave. After all, the stink and giant crawlers in the plumbing was their problem.

Yet in a corner of my mind came a little voice saying that everything was not as it seemed. They must have known about the creepies a long time before I came along and probably made the same conclusion about the smell. It was almost like they wanted them there. And why did Forsyth fire his entire staff, put everything on automatic, yet keep two zeros like Herzog and Smith, alias Major Quann.

Quann. I had almost forgot about our tender reunion. It occurred to me whatever he was involved it had to smell worse than Excon's pump room. Now what could that be?

Another gout of dhungsmoke lifted from behind Herzog's desk to fan out over the ceiling. It was time for a second inspection of Excon property downlevel. And this one was going to be on the house.

####

I found myself a little nest of empty drums near the assembly plant storage area and when I was sure no one was looking my way ducked inside. The smell in the place was still there, strong as ever and it brought back the familiar headache.

For awhile I watched the coming and going of white uniforms through the steam. Flawlessly, the newly-made chemsteel girders slid from injector chutes, dropped into the celon tanks where they were hooked out and sent along a conveyer track out of sight.

Very efficient. That's the impression I got of both the machinery and the workers. Nobody talked, nobody stretched or yawned or just goofed off for a moment. A buzzer went off and they all marched off as one while the next shift marched in and got right to work. They reminded me of a crew of Astrone mining automatons but without the good humor and camaraderie.

Then I saw it. I first took it for a dark rag draped over the side of a dip tank until it sprang up and sank its pincers into a passing worker. He stopped dead and let the leech thing just hang there, jerking. I had a pretty good idea of what it was up to. After a minute or so it dropped with a wet plop to the floor and using its spines crawled up the tank and slid from sight. The worker took a few unsteady steps then went on to adjust some equipment as if nothing had happened.

"Hey! Hold it a second, shipmate!" I scrambled from my pile of drums and hurried over to the former a la carte special.

He paused with a spindriver over an idler cam and peered at me, his goggles glinting in the overhead lights.

"Afternoon, spacer," he greeted me. "I sure hope what you have to say won't take much time because we're three units behind a new production record."

"Don't worry about it," I consoled him. "Want to tell me why you let that leech thing help itself to a free meal off you? Did it feel good, or something?"

"What leech thing, shipmate?"

"Right. Let me take a look at your chest."

"As I was saying, a new production record --"

"What's your name, shipmate?"

"Elno Gruber. Employee CY9118, fifth shift."

"Well, Elno, I'm the new Corporation Executive Officer from the Department of Dispersing Nine Millimeter Set Screws. Now let me see your chest."

"Um... I suppose so." He reluctantly put down his tool and pulled the zipper on his coverall. "Getting back to what I was telling you, fifth shift is about to set a new production record in this cycle for girders and if we do, we get to have our quota increased by two hundred units."

"That's wonderful, Elno." His chest was a mass of puncture wounds, old and new. "What about these marks here?"

"Of course, second shift has the lead in rail and rivet production. But we've volunteered an extra two cycles a shift and that'll beat them, just you wait."

"How long you worked here, Elno?"

"Third shift is nowhere near us either. But don't get me wrong. They're a great bunch of shipmates and naturally we're all in there pulling for the greatest company on Colony. Yeah."

"I'm sure glad to hear that. Say, let me take a look at those goggles of yours." His pupils were contracted to the size of diodes and he seemed to be staring through me to some production quota a kilometer away.

"Can I get back to work, spacer? Of course I'll deduct the time I've spent shooting the void with you from my punch bar."

"Get to work, Elno." He replaced his goggles and slouched off to be lost in the steam.

So this was why Excon stopping having their labor problems. A whole crew of drugged drones slaving away shift after shift for a few creds. Vox knows how long they expected to get away with this. But then again I had to admit their production quota was damn impressive. And what right did I have lounging around here while fifth shift lands that extra two hundred unit quota? I should be pitching in and helping them get an even higher one. Why in Zerid should I be left out of the greatest company on Colony working with the greatest shipmates?

Through a thousand meters of fog I found myself on my hands and knees on the concrete floor babbling about girder quotas and company loyalty. A numbness was creeping through me, a subzero cold freezing my arms and legs, sliding my brain into a wintery sleep. Like a sleepwalker I fumbled in my vest for my emergency oxyrespirator.

There was a splash, followed by a dull wet thud from the celon tank behind me. Even in my fogged state I had a real good idea what it was. I fell over on my side, grabbing the butt of my particle gun.

The eyeless face reared over me, dripping celon. It paused as if licking its chops, pincers slowly opening and closing.

The red needle of my gun hit it dead square, scattering juices, spines and body parts. I lowered the gun to the floor. A thousand years later I pulled the oxyrespirator loose and strapped it on, ignoring the maniac voice in my mind chattering about quotas, the great guys in the front office and the need to get my lazy buttocks to work. For awhile I enjoyed my own private light show then gradually, my brain cleared.

####
I was amazed how only one kick smashed the door from its hinges and scattered pieces over the thick carpet. They sure don't make company president doors like they used to. I'll say this for Forsyth, he didn't bat an eye when I came strolling in.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Forsyth, I'm from Squash-M Pest Control. I'd like a few words with you if you could spare the time."

"I don't believe I have you on my appointment readouts," he replied casually.

"Gee, I must have forgotten to make one."

"Then I suppose all I can say is you'll have to come back at a later time."

I placed my knuckles on his hand-tooled sithide blotter and stuck my face into his.

"I'll leave when I've had my say, Forsyth. I've just come from that chamber of horrors you've got going down there in your assembly plant. You know, I once visited the penal colony on Solitaire and saw their punishment cells. But that looks like a resort compared to Excon."

"I think you had better explain yourself and do it fast. I'm not just sitting here making doodles on my viscreen, you know."

"Fine. Let's talk about several hundred of your workers drugged by some gas given off by the pump system. I'll bet they work cheaper and better than the latest industrial andrex. They don't worry about pain or fatigue and cheerfully log the long hours and ever increasing quotas you set. Let's talk about mutant leeches in the tanks dining on their blood. And don't tell me you and Herzog didn't know exactly what was going on for how long, Forsyth; months? Years?"

He leaned back in his chair and eyed me with good humor mingled with a fair amount of contempt.

"Now let me tell you what you really saw, Mr. Squash-M. You saw members of the Excon team, the most hardworking, loyal employees in any factory on the planet. I provide comfortable quarters, simple but nourishing food, clothes and job security for all. Isn't that what you saw?" He jabbed his pen into my vest. "And as to the supposed...ah, mutant leech attacks, well, I'm sure my people would have complained by now if that was happening. Don't you think?"

"Let me tell you what is going to happen, Forsyth." I grabbed him by the front of his jacket and jerked him from his seat.

"When I walk out of here I'm jetting to Colony's Labor Commissioner and turn your fat posterior in. And when they hear about this little operation--"

I felt something shoved into the back of my head. I looked around to see Quann squinting along the sights of a blaster.

"Me take him to Green Room now, Mr. Forsyth? Me fix so know one know where he go."

"That won't be necessary, Mr. Smith." Forsyth settled comfortably back in his chair and gave out a patient sigh. "That's not going to happen, you know."

"Tell me how you're so sure."

"Because one of the biggest investors in Excon is Colony's Labor Commissioner. In fact, a lot of people have investments here. Important people, high in the government and Peaceforce. They see us as a growing and profitable concern and are not likely to react to a torrent of wild accusations from some warphappy cellarman.

"But you rush on down there, young man. I'm sure they'll have all the proper complaint forms for you to fill out. But I don't think we'll be seeing each other again."

"Me take him to Green Room now, Mr. Forsyth? Me fix him good, no be trouble us," Quann pleaded. He was waving his blaster in my face and had the safety off.

"Not necessary, Mr. Jones. Just escort him from company

property."

"You mean Mr. Smith," I said.

"You have a very quick mind and powers of observation, young man. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find intelligent, competent people in business nowadays. I have to settle for chaff, I tell you, chaff." He paused and regarded me bleakly. "I almost forgot. I'll be deducting the cost of my office door when your company bills me. Take him away."

Then Quann finally got around to doing what he should have at first -- relieving me of my weapons. He grabbed the butt of my particle gun and let off an agonized squall as he hit the deck on the other side of the room, his blaster flying. I had my lightstick out in a snap and flicked it to red load as I drew on them both.

"Like my little electron booby-trap, Smith? Or wasn't I showing proper respect to my former commander?"

Quann stopped rocking back and forth on his knees with his injured hand tucked under an armpit to stare at me. Slowly the color drained from his face.

"What you mean?" he whispered.

"My, how the years have affected your memory, Quann. Like a few hints? Solitaire? The men and women you sold out to the Zeroids?"

Quann's eyes were fixed on the business end of the lightstick.

He looked like he had just been disemboweled and someone was about to step on his colon.

"Nothing to say, huh?" I glanced at my wrist timeband. "That's too bad because I've got a few cycles to kill."

Forsyth's scowl darkened. "You're up to something, cellarman. I'm too shrewd a businessman not to see this little scenario in my office is just a farce you're playing out for some reason."

I leaned against the wall and made Quann a little sicker by carelessly tapping on the lightstick's button. "Actually, I'm just pondering what nine months in a Zeroid concentration camp is worth to Mr. Smith here."

"You're stalling for time. Why are you stalling for time, cellarman?"

"Well, if you must know. While I was lying on your assembly plant floor recovering from the celon tank gas I was thinking....what would I do if I was one of your loyal employees cum slave and came to my right mind, realizing what you and your happy crew have been up to. And I did notice that one of the gas side effects is a maniacal rage. Interesting, huh?"

"I've had just enough of you and your arrogant self-righteousness," Forsyth growled. "Since you're so interested in penal camps I'm going to promise you--"

There was a wild babble of voices in the hallway outside

growing in volume and bellicosity. There were angry yells and the crash of doors being broken down and furniture depreciated. A mob of workers in white coveralls burst into the office.

It was the crew from the plant and it didn't appear as if they were here to humbly ask for a slight increase in pay. Forsyth blanched and an ominous silence fell.

Shakily, he got up from his desk and gaped at the glowering faces packed into the doorway. "What's happening?" he asked in a quavering voice. "What's the meaning of this?"

"I was just about to let you in on a little secret," I said, smugly enjoying the moment. "Before I came up for our cordial chat I turned on all the induction fans in the plant. The entire place must be packed with the freshest air you can find on Colony."

A worker elbowed his way the front of the crowd, jabbing his finger like a snub pistol at the Excon president. "There he is, shipmates!" he announced, "High pay, bonuses and paid vacations to the Radnor Pleasure Asteroid he promised us. And what did we get? Long hours, slops for food and I for one haven't seen a paycard since I been here!"

"Elno! How is the production quota coming along?" I asked. "Is second shift still the leader in rail and rivet production?"

"Prong the production quota and the rails and rivets. Prong us all for not figuring out what was happening to us all this time." His voice rose to a screech. "Down to the plant with them, shipmates! Let's give them a taste of their own wardrations!"

The room shook to a roar from fifty voices. The crowd surged forward submerging Forsyth and Quann in a wave of bodies, fists and flailing wrenches. Screaming and struggling they were dragged from the office and down the corridor to the lifts. Gradually the noise died away leaving me to select a choice New Chicago cigar from Forsyth's humidor and settle myself comfortably into the recently vacated chair. It had been a long day and I felt I deserved a little break before I checked back in to Squash-M.

"The workers! They've assaulted Mr. Smith and Mr. Herzog and even Mr. Forsyth and taken them down to the plant!" The perky andrex receptionist rushed into the office, her eyes wide and bewildered. "They... they've thrown them into the celon tanks!"

"So?" I exhaled smoke at the ceiling and propped my boots up on the hand-tooled blotter. I had finally found something I liked about Forsyth -- his brand of cigars.

"But the tanks were full of these squiggly black things and they haven't come up yet!"

"Somehow I don't think they will. But that's nothing for you to worry about; the Peacemen will be here sooner or later to sort it all out." I grinned at her from around my cigar. "All it means to you is you're out of as job."

"Yes but..." Her brown eyes mirrored blank confusion in a way only a model IV can when events exceed their programming input. "What is going to happen now?"

"By a happy coincidence Squash-M Pest Control has an opening for a receptionist in the Personnel Department. I can put in a good word if you're interested."

"Um...I suppose under the circumstances that might be something to think about," she relied hesitantly.

"Great. Are you any good at speakbar dictation?"

For a moment she stood gazing at me then a smile spread out from the corners of her mouth. Languorously she eased her rounded bottom onto the edge of the late Mr. Forsyth's desk and held the ashtray under my cigar.

"Blondie," she purred, "I'm good at everything."

I've never been in the habit of calling a lady a liar, even a magnificently proportioned reproduction of protoflesh and chemsteel. I got up and offered her my arm.

"Let's discuss the details of your new employment in the more convivial surroundings of a cozy bistro I know of."

THE END


© 2010 Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Bio: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt resides in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. His science fiction stories have appeared in Orion's Child, Residential Aliens, Allegory Magazine, and Aphelion (The Tin City Good Deal, April, 2010).

E-mail: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

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