Magyar was not around when the shift started, and Paolo was as eager as ever to learn. We were scheduled to check the leachate barriers under and around our troughs, a tedious, time-consuming job. It seemed like a good time to start him at the beginning.
“There are all kinds of different ways to classify bacteria. There’s temperature: thermophilic bugs prefer hot water, fifty-five to seventy-five Celsius; mesophiles like it medium; psychrophiles a bit cooler. They can be grouped by how they do or don’t use oxygen. Aerobic bacteria only work in oxygen, anaerobic only work without it, and facultative bacteria work with or without. Beyond that, there’s what the bugs eat. Heterotrophic bacteria feed on organic carbon sources, and autotrophic bacteria utilize carbon dioxide. Lots of those categories can be further divided into gram-positive and gram-negative, which is to do with the difference in the cell-wall structure.” Paolo looked confused.
“You’ll have to stop me when I talk about things you don’t understand.”
Maybe someone had told him to shut up at school. Asking questions did not seem to come easily. I just waited. “What’s the difference between bacteria and fungus?” he asked diffidently
Fungi, I thought, but now wasn’t the time to correct him. I wasn’t sure where to begin. “There are different ways to differentiate, but for our purposes, the difference is in how the microorganisms go about breaking down pollutants. Bacteria produce enzymes that break down the bonds between elements in a carbon chain. The enzymes are specific to certain types of organic compounds, and they’re intracellular.” He looked blank. “It means that the contaminant has to be soluble. It has to be able to enter the bacterial cell. So if the contaminant is a heavy organic, then a fungus is probably better. The enzymes they make also break down the carbon bonds but they’re nonspecific and extracellular. So they need only close proximity, not solubility.” His face was closing up. “Where did I lose you?”
“Everywhere.” His eyes were hard and dry, but his voice shook. “I don’t know enough to even learn. What’s a carbon chain? Or organic? An enzyme? What does soluble mean? I feel like there’s a whole world floating just out of my grasp, as though I’m blind and you’re talking about colors. Heterotrophic, you say, or enzyme, and you may as well be talking about… about flying to a bird that’s had its wings chewed off!”
He turned away and I wanted to reach out to him, put an arm around his hunched shoulders. I remembered just in time that he didn’t like to be touched.
“I’m sorry. It’s my fault for starting in the middle instead of the beginning.”
“You just didn’t expect me to be stupid,” he said bitterly.
“You’re not stupid.” He wouldn’t turn around and look at me. “Paolo, listen to me. You’re not stupid. Not knowing the right definitions is no different from not having the right tools to fix a burst water pipe. You can learn. I can teach you.”
He looked at me over his shoulder for moment, then turned all the way round. “Can you?”
He studied me. By his expression, he didn’t know whether he wanted to believe me or not. Hope could be dangerous.
He probably needed time to think. “We need to get all these barriers checked and that feed line on forty-two unclogged before the break. We can talk about it more then.” He seemed relieved.
Paolo and I were the last into the breakroom. When we got there, both screens were off and the assembled shift was very quiet. Magyar was there, with Hepple. Her eyes were as hard as beryl.
“… and so our acting shift manager-”
“Night manager, now.” Hepple was smiling slightly and rocking up onto the balls of his feet.
Magyar forced a smile. “Mr. Hepple, recently promoted to night manager, has decided to take a look, in person, at our particular part of the operation. He’ll be on duty with us this evening.” So. That was what she was angry about. He was checking up on us and, by implication, her.
Hepple nodded at her, a patronizing, dismissive little gesture. It made me angry. “Thank you, Cherry.” Oh, he was enjoying himself: “As you may know, I have long asserted that Hedon Road could be even more efficient than at present. I have been given this new position with a mandate to improve productivity. Toward that end, I have decided to pay closer attention to the on-floor management process.” Magyar’s smile was brittle. We were her team, only she could harangue us or praise us, and now Hepple was embarrassing her in front of us all. Judging by the way she kept her body turned slightly away from him, the stiffness in her shoulders, she wanted to stuff him in our dirtiest effuent and watch him swallow sewage. “And now we’ll leave you to take your well-earned break in peace.” She stressed well-earned, letting us know that this was not her idea, that she knew we worked hard enough as it was without being dogged every step of the way.
But Hepple had not finished with us. “I’m looking forward to watching you all in action. I’m sure I’ll find—despite Cherry’s protestations of understaffing—that you are a fully capable and hardworking team. That’s all.”
He seemed to be waiting for us to leave, then remembered it was our breakroom. He nodded at the room in general and opened the door. Magyar preceded him.
“Christ,” Cel said. “That’s all we need.”
“I thought Magyar was going to pop him.” Kinnis sounded as though he wished she had. “What do you think of that crack about ‘Cherry’s protestations’?”
Cel pulled a meat roll out of its self-heating carton and blew on it. “Means we won’t be getting any more workers, and that he’ll be looking for someone to fire and not replacing them.”
“He’s an ambitious little snot,” Meisener said. There were general nods. One or two people wondered out loud if now might not be a good time to look for a job somewhere else. “I looked around before I signed on here,” Meisener said. “Nothing. Tighter than a rabbit’s arse. But I’ve seen these young turks get revved up before. Sooner or later he’ll go too far, get too greedy too fast, and then things’ll be back to normal. All we have to do is wait him out.”
I wasn’t so sure.
Hepple, immaculate in cliptogether over skinnysuit without a mask, came onto the floor half an hour after the break. I was at the influent station when he appeared, accompanied by Magyar. She explained the various readouts, and that “Bird here is on analysis.”
He turned to me blankly, then snapped his fingers. “Ah, yes. Bird. New here. Three weeks, is it?”
“Almost four,” I said.
“And how are you getting on?”
“Very well, sir,” I said. “I’ve found section supervisor Magyar attentive to the needs of both workers and process, which makes everything run very smoothly.” There, Magyar. What do you think of that?
Hepple frowned very slightly, making his soft mouth pooch out like a baby’s. “No doubt, no doubt. But we’ll have things running even more efficiently soon enough.”
If I had been Magyar I would have been insulted.
“Now, tell me. The viability of the bugs-” He pointed to the lines that fed the various species of bacteria and their required nutrients, if any, into the troughs. “-they’re checked every two hours?”
“Yes.” I looked at Magyar for some kind of clue. Her face was as stiff as a mask.
“Hmmm.” Hepple turned to Magyar. “I think we should increase that schedule, don’t you?”
“We will of course be happy to follow any of your suggestions.” What else could she say?
“Indeed. Indeed.” He sighed contentedly, like a cat contemplating a crippled mouse. “Yes. I think we’ll have those readings taken every hour.”
That was ridiculous.
“Sir,” Magyar said smoothly before I could frame a reply, “I’m sure Bird would be more than happy to comply.” She shot me a glance. I nodded earnestly. Slave and overseer ganging up on the plantation owner. “But she and I will need some input from you on our revised priorities.”
I thought I saw where Magyar was going. “Yes, sir. That would help. I mean, at the moment the most important part of my job is monitoring the nitrogen and TOC levels. If I split my focus, mistakes will be made. Besides, the extraction and testing is routine and automated. Any significant deviation from the norm would activate the alarms.”
“Significant isn’t good enough now, Bird. From now on, any deviation, no matter how small, must be corrected immediately.”
“Sir, might I ask why?”
“I want to run a lean, fit operation. Even small deviations lead to inefficiencies.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Magyar open her mouth and then close it. I knew how she felt. Microadjustments were a waste of everyone’s time. All of the strains used at Hedon Road were premium, genetically tailored van de Oest varieties, which bred true and, given the correct substrate and feeds, kept to a steady and reliable rate of growth. The automatic systems were finely tuned. Unless influent changes were sudden and massive, the system was capable of correcting itself.
In the overhead arc lights I caught the glint of sweat on Hepple’s lip. He was worried about something. Worried people are not always rational. Best to acquiesce. “Sir.”
I wondered why he felt he had to repeat everything. I was uneasy now. Insecure people could be dangerous.
He must have misinterpreted my expression. “If you can’t keep up with the monitoring, then draft someone to help.” He looked around vaguely, alighting on Paolo, who had just climbed from the trough with an armful of cut bulrushes. “You there! Yes, you. What do you think you’re doing?”
Paolo, who was doing nothing wrong, stopped, uncertain.
I stepped between them. “He’s new here, sir. I’ve-”
“Don’t you have things to do, Bird?”
Magyar caught my eye, shook her head very slightly, then pointed to herself: Protecting Paolo is my job. She could probably do it better. I obediently turned back to the bank of readouts, but I listened hard, and kept them in my peripheral vision.
“As Bird says, sir, Paolo here is new, though he seems to be an excellent-”
“Yes, yes. Look, Cherry, I’m sure you have pressing duties elsewhere.”
Magyar could do nothing but bow to the inevitable. Hepple turned to Paolo, and smiled. Paolo waited.
“Now, Paolo, is it? Yes, well, as you’ve no doubt heard, Bird here will be conducting hourly test sequences on our bugs. The results of those tests, and the monitoring numbers, will come directly to me instead of Magyar. And I want you to bring them to me. Personally. Every hour. No matter where I am, or what you might be doing.”
That was ridiculous.
“Of course,” Hepple went on, “this does not give you any excuse to slack off in your other duties. Is that clear?”
Paolo nodded, expressionless.
“When I ask you a question, I expect an answer. Once again, is that clear?”
“Yes, sir.” His voice was thin and tight with anger. I moved around the instrument displays so I could see them both.
“Good, good.” Hepple slapped Paolo on the shoulder, pleased with himself now that he had found someone to bully. I don’t think he noticed the muscles bunch along Paolo’s jaw. “Now, I want you to take me through your little part in our operation. Don’t leave anything out.”
There was no sign of Magyar. I wondered if she was somewhere grinding her teeth.
Eventually, Hepple got bored and left Paolo alone to pick up the pile of rushes he had had to abandon. I walked up behind him. The support strap that stretched between his shoulder blades was vibrating slightly, and I could smell his stress sweat. I wanted to lay a hand on his thin back, but did not.
“Paolo?” I said gently. “Paolo?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stuffing rushes jerkily into a sack. He did not turn around.
“I’ll talk to Magyar. She might be able to do something.”
He whirled. “I said I’m fine.” Something about his pale, thin face reminded me of Tok. A muscle at the corner of his mouth jumped. His eyes were almost black with anger and humiliation.
“I don’t need a woman to fight my battles!” His voice was clotted and violent and I could not have been more surprised if he had hit me. We did not speak for the rest of the shift except when I monitored the viability of the microbes and gave him the figures to take to Hepple.
“He’ll be sorry,” he swore. “You’ll all be sorry.”
When I got home, it took me a long time to fall asleep. I dreamed of the loading yard at Hedon Road, of trucks screaming through puddles, trying to run me down.
* * *
Lore and Spanner came back from the Polar Bear and the windows of the shop under their flat were bright behind the shutters.
“What do they sell there?” Lore asked, remembering the people coming and going that first night she had spent in Spanner’s flat.
“Tired old porn. Want to see?”
They went inside. The lighting was bright and cheerful, as were shelf after shelf of plastic products: purple silicon dildos, bright pink things that looked like modern abstract art and took Lore a moment to recognize as artificial vaginas. Several screens were running two-minute demo loops. Lore watched one. Spanner was right. The porn was old and tired, almost laughable. The characters moved jerkily and in several frames the skin color of the man’s body did not match his head. “I can do better than that.”
“Yeah. Anyone who isn’t blind could probably do better than that.”
“Does this stuff actually sell?”
“I want to see some more.”
A woman with huge, meaty arms and several chins came out from behind the counter. “Then you have to pay for it.”
“You’re kidding,” said Spanner. “No one would pay for this garbage.”
“Lots of people do. You want it or not?”
Spanner looked at Lore. “No.” The woman shook her head in disgust and lumbered back behind the counter.
“Look at this one,” Lore said. Spanner glanced at it cursorily. “The sea in the bottom of the frame is a different color to that at the top. That’s just sloppiness.”
“The people who watch these things aren’t looking at the sea.”
“Maybe not, but it only takes a couple of minutes of programming to get the whole picture to mesh. I could do better than this with one hand tied behind my back.”
Spanner peered at the screen. “He seems to be doing pretty well with both arms tied behind his back.”
“And see that shadow on his thigh? Looks like it’s noon. But the sun’s setting.”
Spanner looked. “I always wondered why these tapes seemed so odd.”
“I was doing better work than this three years ago.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m serious. Let’s get out of here.”
Later, in bed, Lore was just drifting off to sleep when Spanner spoke into the darkness. “What would you need to make those porn pictures?”
“More equipment than we could afford.” Lore turned over, feeling sleep curling up along her backbone like a warm cat.
“Tell me anyway.”
* * *
The next shift was even worse. Paolo was strung as tight as piano wire. Hepple appeared every forty minutes, asking about this or that, wasting our time, making everyone jumpy. My stomach began to ache. At one point, I thought Paolo was going to hit Hepple. At the break, someone turned the net volume up high, and what talk there was consisted of surly, one-syllable grunts. Everyone was tired and tense; I was almost glad to get back to work. I saw Magyar only once, two hours into the shift, and gave her a duplicate of the figures I was getting for Hepple. It made me feel better, somehow, that he wasn’t the only one with the information. She looked as though she had not slept at all the night before. We didn’t speak, but we nodded, like secret allies in enemy territory.
An hour later Hepple told us he was raising the water temperature several degrees. “I’m trying to speed up the through time. Faster throughput means greater daily volume, which will up our market share. This plant isn’t working anywhere near full efficiency.” I wanted to bang his head against.the pipes. The only way to increase the throughput was to get a bigger work crew: keep the troughs clean and at peak efficiency. All the rise in ambient water temperature would achieve was a hotter work environment.
Why was he doing this? I considered, briefly, the Health and Safety Council, but once they found a reason to be interested in an operation, they investigated everything and everyone connected to it. I could not afford that.
I sweated in my skinny. The thick, humid air got thicker, more dificult to breathe. I felt trapped. The ache in my stomach reminded me of days with Spanner, unable to leave, unable to stay.
Paolo wore his rage like a cloak. He stumbled often, and seemed to be moving more slowly. While I was taking yet another set of readings, Hepple came across him in the far trough, struggling to balance a floating tray of rushes that needed rooting.
“Not there. Put them farther out, where they’ll do most good.”
Farther out was where the rushes were already most dense. Paolo shoved the tray ahead of him, shouldering aside the rushes, getting scratched. He took one of the stems from the tray, bent, came up again with the root still in his hand. He pushed the tray back toward the edge of the trough.
“Are you deliberately disobeying me, boy? I told you to plant these farther out.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?” Couldn’t Hepple feel the rage and resentment burning behind Paolo’s blank expression?
“The water’s too deep. I can’t reach.”
“You mean, you’ll get your face wet if you try too hard.” Hepple smiled his soft-mouthed smile. “Get back out there and do it properly.”
The tendons along Paolo’s neck writhed like snakes.
“Well?” Hepple’s voice was dangerously pleasant.
Paolo turned the tray around, pushed it back out. Hepple watched. I couldn’t stand it any longer.
He turned. “Yes?”
“Sir, Health and Safety regulations state that at no time is an employee required to let contaminated water come into direct contact with his or her unprotected skin.”
“Is that so?”
I couldn’t afford to lose this job, but I couldn’t look at myself m the mirror if I stood by and let him do this to Paolo. “I just thought that for the good of the company you should be reminded, sir, in case something happened under your direct orders and Paolo decided to sue. Could be very damaging.”
“It could, it could.” He did not seem very perturbed. “Thank you for pointing that out.” He turned back to Paolo. “Mr. Cruz, all of a sudden I find that you are physically unsuited to your task. We should never have hired you in the first place. People like you always bring trouble. You’re fired. You can work the rest of the shift, then collect your pay at the office.” He nodded at him pleasantly, then at me. “Thank you once again, Bird.” Just like that, too fast for me to even think about it. He walked off, humming to himself.
Paolo’s face was the color of milky coffee gone cold in the cup. I didn’t know what to say. “Paolo, I’m sorry.”
But Paolo wasn’t listening. He was staring out at nothing in particular, and trembling all over. He walked toward the side of the trough. His mouth was moving. He climbed out, walked right past me, muttering through stiff lips. I had to lean in to hear him. He was repeating what Hepple had said: “People like you. People like you…”
“Paolo? Paolo, wait. Don’t leave. Just keep working here. I’ll get Magyar. We’ll sort it out. He can’t get away with this. He-”
Paolo turned; his eyes were completely black. “Yes, he can. People like that can get away with anything when it concerns people like me.” His voice shook, and now there was a twisty bitterness mixed in with the anger. It scared me.
“Just stay here. Don’t move.” I went straight to the monitoring station and called Magyar. “Hepple’s fired Paolo Cruz. No, nothing he’s done. You need to get here.” I was all ready to tell her I would talk to Kinnis and Cel and Meisener and all the others, that she would have a walkout on her hands if she didn’t come, but I didn’t need to.
“That’s it, Bird. You tell Cruz not to budge. I’ll be right there.”
Paolo was still standing near the trough, muttering. He did not seem to hear me when I called his name. I didn’t know what to do. I hesitated, then picked up some shears. At least I could keep an eye on him until Magyar got here. And I had my own work to do.
“Bird!” Magyar was talking and striding past me at the same time. “Come with me. Cruz, you stay right there.” I don’t think he even heard her.
I had to scramble out of the trough; she was not slowing down for anybody.
We found Hepple in the floor office, a clear-paned box twenty feet up with a view of the whole primary sector. He was sitting down, making notes on a slate. Magyar slammed the door open and was talking before Hepple had the time to sit up straight. “You have no right to fire one of my workers. Misconduct, if any, should have been reported to me, and I would have made the correct decision. You had no right to go over my head.” I stood slightly behind Magyar, surrounded by reflections in the glass walls.
Hepple and his reflection laid the slate aside, carefully, as though his conversation with Magyar would take only a minute and he did not want to lose his place. “He was insolent. We would have had to let him go anyway when we downsized the workforce.”
Magyar was momentarily thrown. “Downsizing? When was that decided?”
“This morning, I believe. So you see, it would have happened sooner or later.”
“Wait. Just wait a minute. I thought you had grand designs to expand this plant, increase the throughput.”
“I do, I do. But I persuaded the board that we don’t need as many people to achieve that goal.”
Magyar shook her head like a dog worrying a rabbit and I watched her reflection’s hair shimmer back and forth. “This was the wrong way to do it. You tormented that boy. If nothing else, common decency should…”
Common decency. The phrase rippled back and forth like the reflection of Magyar’s hair in the glass. She and Hepple were still talking, but I wasn’t listening anymore. Common decency… I finally remembered, finally realized what it was about Paolo and the way he moved that bothered me.
All my fault…
Guilt, mine, my family’s, stopped the breath in my lungs and pulled the muscles along my arms and legs rigid. But then fear—of him, for him, what he might do, all that bitterness—snapped me out of it.
“Sorry,” I said jerkily to the air, and reached blindly for the door.