from “Steelcollar Worker”
by Vonda N. McIntyre
The enormous fuzzy balloon bounced from Jannine’s fingertips, rose in an eerie, slow curve, and touched its destination. The viddydub forces took over, sucking the squashed ball into place with a loud, satisfied slurp.
“Work always reminds me of that Charlie Chan movie,” Jannine said.
Neko, farther along on the substrate, pitched an identical elemental balloon into the helical structure. She had an elegant, overhand throw; she had played ball before she left school, but she was too small to get a scholarship.
“What Charlie Chan movie?” she asked. “Not that I go out of my way to see Charlie Chan movies.”
“The one where he’s dancing with the globe?” Jannine checked the blueprint hovering nearby, freed an element from the substrate, and moved it into place.
“Do you maybe mean Charlie Chaplin?” Neko said. “The Great Dictator?”
“Chaplin, right.” Jannine picked up a third element, tossed it, caught it again, danced on one toe.
Neko tossed an element through the helix. A perfect curve ball, it arced, touched, settled, like a basketball into quicksand. Its fuzzy outlines blurred as it melted into the main structure, still a discrete entity, but pouring its outer layers into the common pool.
“I don’t think you’d go too far as a dictator,” Neko said.
“I don’t want to be the dictator. I want to be the guy who pretends to be the dictator.”
She leaped again, twisting as she left the ground. But the system wouldn’t let her spin. It caught her and stopped her with hard invisible fingers. She found herself on the ground, with no sensation of falling between leap and sprawl.
“Are you all right? I wish you wouldn’t do that. Jeez, it makes me nauseous just to watch you.”
Jannine picked herself up. Smiling, she glanced toward Neko, but Neko’s blurry face showed no expression.
“I’m okay,” Jannine said to reassure her co-worker. Neko couldn’t see her expression any more than Jannine could see Neko’s. “Someday the system will handle a spin. How’ll I know if I don’t try?”
Neko picked up one more of the furry elemental balls and dropped it into place. The elementals scattered at her feet, bumping and quivering, sticking briefly to the substrate or bouncing off. Once in a while, two melded into dumbbell-shapes, then parted again.
“The system will handle a spin when you grow a ball-joint in your wrist,” Neko said, exasperated. “You could read the documentation when there’s an upgrade.”
“Oh, when all else fails, read the instructions.” Jannine laughed. “I don’t have time to read the instructions.” She wished the company would let her take the manual home, but that was against the rules. You were only allowed to read the manual in the company library.
Jannine and Neko walked down the helix, positioning the elementals, now and again prying one out and replacing it.
A herd of elementals quivered toward Jannine, like bowling balls under a gray blanket. Several escaped and flew off into the sky.
“Warm fuzzies today,” Neko said.
“Yeah.” Jannine went to the system and asked for cooling. The elementals calmed, settled to the ground, and re-absorbed their covering blanket. Once in a while, an elemental emitted a smear.
The helix extended out of sight in both directions. Jannine and Neko had been working on this section for a week. Jannine loved watching the helix evolve under her hands. The details of substrate, helix, and elementals changed so fast that a human could alter the helix better than a robot, even better than enzymes.
A flicker in Jannine’s vision: the helix and the substrate and Neko vanished.
Jannine found herself in the real world. The couch held her among water-filled cushions, cradling her body.
The screen of her helmet reflected her face, an image as unreal and distorted against the smoky plastic as Neko’s face had been, back inside the system. The screen’s color faded. The audio fuzz cut out.
The clamor and bustle of the factory surrounded her: the electronic whine of the system, the subsonic drumming of coolant pumps, the voices and shapes of her co-workers as they got out of their couches and tidied up for the day shift.
With her free left hand, Jannine opened the padded collar that secured her helmet. She raised the mechanism from her head. The noise level rose.
She shivered. The factory was always chilly. Her awareness of her body faded when she worked. She never felt cold till she came out of her workspace and back into real life. On the substrate, the temperature hovered just above absolute zero. Down there, she always felt warm. Up here, where the laboring pumps only incidentally lowered the temperature a few degrees, she always felt cold.
She unbuckled the cuff around her right wrist and freed her hand from the magnetic control.
Wiggling her fingers, clenching her fist, shaking her arm, she slid out of the couch. All around her, her co-workers stood and stretched and groaned in the cold. She unplugged her helmet and wiped it down and stowed it. She wished she owned one, a helmet she could impress her own settings in and paint with her own design.
Neko crossed the aisle and joined her.
“Brownie points tonight,” Neko said.
She moved smoothly, easily, with none of the stiffness everyone else was feeling. She moved like her nickname, Neko, cat.
“A bonus, huh?” Jannine said. “Great. We make a good team.”
They’d fallen into the habit of chatting for a few minutes after work while they waited for the crush at the exit to ease.
But instead of replying, Neko stared at Jannine’s control couch, at the manipulator that reduced the motions of Jannine’s hand to movements in the angstrom range.
“Did you notice what it is we’re making?” Neko said.
by Vonda N. McIntyre
$3.99 (Collection) ISBN 978-1-61138-164-1