Community > Planet Tales

They Also Serve Who Stand to Sweep


Buster's Uncle:
Chapter one: Quiet Time

Carl was engaged in nit-picking pixel manipulation on the new wall decorations to go up in corridor 3b, subsection D, deck 27.  Most dectecs just unloaded whatever recommended images the psych department passed along to the electrostatic wall displays and had done with it, but he prided himself on his artistry, and liked to use his own work, or at least put a personal touch on it.  Keeping the psych atmosphere of the facilities just right was important; in his opinion, by far the most important part of his job as a maintenance engineer.  The murals needed individuality to be most effective, and that required the attention of a specialist on the spot.

The fact that the ship had been underway with a skeleton crew all these years made meticulous attention to the feng shui of the quiet, mostly-empty ship more important, not less.  Every hand awake was essential to the mission, and any measures that might lessen the burden of loneliness for the crew had to be taken, and with care.

Carl Buncle didn’t approve of the other janitors who simply went through the motions of doing their jobs well enough to get by.  Most of the work was automated, and an occasional sloppily-swept floor was unlikely to imperil the mission, but he was of the school of thought that a job worth doing was worth doing well.  It was that work ethic, combined with his exacting nature and a broad set of shoulders that had carried him to an Olympic bronze metal in wrestling, and later, admittance to the Unity expedition.

The selection committee had loved his athletic qualifications; they were looking for the best of humanity, and life on a new world was going to require strong backs.  Not a few top athletes were among the colonists and crew of the mission- Carl was nothing special for that.

What had gotten him his berth on the skeletal voyage-crew, not a terribly sought-after posting, but an essential one, was in the psyche tests.  Carl was a highly-self contained individual, possessed of depths no one acquainted with the quietly affable, simple-seeming man suspected.  His rich internal life had kept him sane and content while he busily attended to his duties for the nearly 40 years thus far of the journey.  Good habits picked up in athletic training and the best longevity treatments mankind had to offer took care of his body.

He missed women, though; the handful awake on the trip had been so popular as to not be any prospect.  Romance had become such a distant memory that he rarely even dreamed about sex any more - though the occasional exception was a doozy.  It wasn’t something he allowed himself to think about much, which had become easier with practice over the years.

Buncle was fiddling with the glow around the setting sun when the indicator flashed.  Something was amiss in the Rec Commons which required human intervention.  He saved his work, rose, and turned to his janitor’s cart.  Details were important, and he wasn’t a man to put attending to them off.

Buster's Uncle:
Chapter Two: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

“Carl!” Buncle heard as he pushed his maintenance cart past the entrance to the HR Coordination Nexus.  It was Alan, standing in the door with the usual stimjuice cup in his hand and enthusiastic look in his eye.  Carl slowed, “Evening, Lieutenant.”  Like Buncle, Alan Covell was, though truly by nature a civilian, technically crew and as management personnel, held a commission; Carl habitually went out of his way to show deference to anyone he could.  It seemed to disarm people.

“Are you coming to the party tomorrow?” Covell asked eagerly.

‘This again,’ Buncle thought.  Alan was bright and funny off-duty; good company as long as he didn’t talk about his work –in which case he lapsed into incomprehensible bureaucratic gibberish- or drink heavily, in which case he became far, far too friendly to Carl.  It was a flattering, but quite uncomfortable thing that always hurt Buncle’s enjoyment of his friend’s company.  It was constantly in the back of his mind that Alan might get too forward or say something embarrassing even when he was cold sober. 

He hated the thought of having to turn anyone down and hurt their feelings.  In that, it was a small mercy that Alan seemed to never remember the times he’d drunkenly cornered Carl into doing just that.  It was doubly bothersome to be continuously, subliminally, offered something Carl wanted so much by someone from whom he didn’t want it.  Still, it was a small community awake on the ship, and diversions were spare; company was company.

“Yessir; I’ll be there,” Carl said, “But I have to get to work; there’s trouble in the Commons.  See you.”  He turned back to his cart and bustled away.

In the Rec Commons he found a mop unit bumping endlessly into the wall near the entrance, with Maarifa Angavu sitting at a table nearby looking amused.  It was an old story and a simple fix; he picked up the heavy bot and turned it around.  Before it could reorient and move away, he hit the hold button and turned to the equipment on his cart to begin a diagnostic.

“Comrade, I’ve seen you do that a million times,” he heard Angavu say, “They resume function as soon as you turn them.  Why bother with a check?”

“Well, Dr. Angavu,” he said, turning, “It wastes a lot of my time, Ma’am.  I have to drop what I’m doing to go turn a stuck bot around.  There ought to be a better way.  I wish I was better with programming; these things seem to have a lot of glitchy floor-plans in their databases and I wish I knew how to head it off.”

She smiled and rose, her mismatched blue and green cybernetic eye-filters glittering.  “I AM good with programming,” she said, moving to stoop beside the bot.  “A simple algorithm to make a 90 degree turn after three bumps against any obstruction ought to do it.  I’ll need a cable to jack in.”

As Carl watched her plug the cable into a port behind one ear, he considered the woman.  Storytelling had become a high art among a voyage crew struggling to stay sane; almost everyone awake knew everyone else’s life story in pretty fine resolution by now, but hers had its mysterious elements.  She’d had a pretty average Tanzanian middle class childhood.  Something very bad that she wouldn’t talk about had clearly happened in her adolescence, but she’d gone on to become a physician researching mental prosthetics for the brain damaged.  A mysterious smile was all the answer any inquiries about her own cyborgization ever got. 

Carl thought her endlessly fascinating.  Maarifa was unusually sharp-witted even in the company of the cream of humanity.  She wasn’t a terribly young woman and not pretty, exactly; but there was intensity to her slender dark face and blue-green gaze that he found compelling.  She made him feel like he had her total attention whenever they spoke; he was more used to being ignored or dismissed.  Of the women awake, she seemed to be the only one who had had no romantic liaisons in all the lonely years of the trip.  The joke around the ship was that she was the only computer aboard with no porn.  Buncle thought it less funny than a crying shame.

Maarifa rose after a minute.  “Fixed.  I’ve instructed it to go recharge, and the patch should be uploaded to the supervisor nexus and sent to every floorclean bot on the ship within the day.”

“Doctor, I don’t how to thank you,” Carl said, “You’ve added years to my life.”

She stood close, a strange expression on her face, “Carl, you can keep your mouth shut.  I like that,” she took his hand, turning, “I know exactly how you can thank me.  Come on, Comrade.”

As she began to pull him towards the storeroom behind the bar, he wondered what job she wanted done and why she always called him comrade; the People’s Republic of Greater Australia had fallen when he was five; it was nothing to do with him.

When she closed the door behind them, turned and kissed him deeply, his mind couldn’t process the shock.  When she began undressing, it shut down entirely.

The timeless animal interval that followed was the most intense experience of his life to date.  He felt like an explosion the universe couldn’t possibly contain.

After, as she rose and dressed, he remained prone and motionless on the floor, feeling like he’d been rendered permanently hollow.  “Comrade?” was all he could croak out.

She smiled one of her warm-icy smiles, “Thank you, Carl; I needed that.”  She opened the door to leave, “Are you coming to the party tomorrow?”


[0] Message Index

Go to full version