“Good afternoon, Charles.”

Chuck Fenton’s lighter sparked brightly in the small, dark room of the plant’s psych ward. “Cut the shit, Willoughby.”

Dr. Anthony Willoughby sighed a little and opened his notebook. “No shit intended, Charles. I was simply welcoming you to my office.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Chuck in a haze of smoke. “What the hell did you call me down here for? This place creeps me out.”
“I just wanted to talk a little,” Willoughby said without looking up from his notepad. “How is work going?”
“You know this place used to be the solitary confinement room for the plant prison?” Chuck pointed to an old exhaust port in the wall with his cigarette. “It even had its own ventilation so they could pump airborne sedatives into the space.”
“Yes, I know that. Why don’t we sit and talk a little bit, Chuck?”

Chuck reluctantly walked around to the armchair in the middle of the room and sat down. He took a long drag, burning down half of the cigarette. He visibly flinched when he inhaled.

Willoughby gave a nod, still without looking up. “Maybe you should quit.”
“Maybe you should start.”
Willoughby sighed again. “Chuck, the reason I called you down here is because I just received the monthly report for employee Dream Chair usage.”
“OK,” Chuck said to the ceiling.
“You logged in over 97 hours this month,” Willoughby read from his pad.
“So?”

Willoughby looked up at Chuck through his thin spectacles. “So, that is quite excessive. On average, employees enjoy the Chair’s services about 30 hours a month. At more than triple that, you’ve raised quite a few eyebrows.”

Chuck sat up in his chair and lit another cigarette off of the burning stub still in his mouth. “I had the credits built up. I didn’t break the rules.”
“I know that.”
“I work real hard on this damn platform!” Chuck leaned forward and flicked his butt into the steel trashcan behind Willoughby.
“Precisely the reason you were able to build up so many usage credits in such a short time.”

The doctor leaned back in his chair and set the notepad on his lap. He had no desk. He found them antagonizing. “Chuck, the real reason you are sitting here isn’t because of an infraction. It’s because it occurred to me when I got this report that last month you spent more time in the Dream World than on your job. That means that you had barely enough time for sleep and meals, let alone any kind of human interaction.”

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“The Dream Chair isn’t a toy. Excessive usage over 90 hours starts the neurological ball rolling for Kirkpatrick’s disease, and that can result in permanent brain damage.”

Chuck stared straight ahead at the Willoughby’s face. “I didn’t know that.”
“I think you did,” the doctor replied. “I think you knew exactly what the risks were. In fact, I think you were counting on it. Kirkpatrick’s disease is a sickness that affects only the highest analytical brain functions: applied math, memory, extremely fine motor functions, that kind of thing. Creativity, speech and emotions are totally unaffected.”

Chuck lit another cigarette and smiled broadly. “Yeah, the ‘Pink Slip’ disease, I remember now. Every department supervisor’s worst nightmare.”

Willoughby smiled slightly. “Somehow I don’t think early retirement is your idea of a nightmare. I did a little digging. You joined up before the Labor Draft. KPD is covered under your disability plan.”

Chuck’s smiled faded. He sat up a little in his chair.

Dr. Willoughby closed his notepad in his lap and took his glasses off. “You like to work hard, don’t you Chuck?”
“Yeah, sure, who doesn’t like a little grit and grime?”
Willoughby chuckled. “You work the double shift rotation. Fourteen-hour days every two weeks, and totally optional. You volunteered for the shift change eight months ago. Pretty tough schedule, big guy. Reactor Department Supervisor is more than a little grit and grime.”

“Look,” Chuck said. “I do my job, above and beyond. I’m a good guy to work with and since I started the doubles my department has pushed at least 123 percent capacity every month!”
“Yes,” the doctor started. “You are quite the hero around here. To be a man of action on an orbital power plant is something to be respected. In your case, revered. You’re practically a legend among the men. How could you keep that up, though? I wonder if you’ve thought about that.”
“Not really my style, doctor.”

Willoughby nodded in a concerned manner. “Of course, but I know it keeps me up at night sometimes. You are the heart and soul of this ship. But even a heart can’t beat forever. How does a legend take a break, or a vacation? You never really read about gods among men taking their five days of R and R. No, it’s usually something a little more dramatic. A hero, cut down in his prime, publicly.”

Chuck swallowed hard and spit the burning ember to the floor. The vent over the doctor started to rattle a little bit. “Yeah, OK. Hey, you get an AC unit for your office, Doc? Good thing. It can get pretty hot. So I hear.”

“Something like an injury,” the doctor continued absently. “Something specific, like losing a limb, or an eye, would make for a respectable out for someone like yourself. Of course, that requires a substantial amount of physical sacrifice. Now … a brain injury! Hell, after something like that you could just bow out. Thought itself is a mystery to most of our employees. For someone to be taken out of the game by a neurological disease, well, that person might as well have been struck down by a wizard as far as the work force is concerned.”

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The rattling grew louder above Willoughby’s head. Chuck was having problems remembering in which pocket he had put his cigarettes. Had he even brought them in with him? “I’m surprised your predecessors hadn’t ever thought of it,” Willoughby said. “It’s actually quite ingenious, using the provided recreation devices to put you out of commission. Who could think of a better way to go?” The doctor smiled widely. He had too many teeth.

No, they were just all the same, perfect and flat.

Chuck tried to sit up and could only slide himself further down in the chair. “What’s with the teeth, Willerbay? You got some falsies in there, or what?”
Willoughby smiled wider, straining his face. “These are just the ones I had when I woke up, Charles. Nothing special about them. Standard.”
Chuck dropped his lighter to the floor and slumped over, feeling himself tip forward. “Standard? You mean like Standard Automation?”
“The same, my boy.”
“Shit.” Chuck collapsed to the floor, knocking his leather cap off of his head. He was unconscious before the rattling of the AC vent stopped.

Willoughby relaxed his face and stood up from his office chair. His notepad slid to the floor. “No one can afford a retired hero, Charles. I’m sure someone of your ingenious nature, can understand that.”

The door to the office slid open with a cat’s hiss. Two men in hazmat suits walked in and, without a word, began scooping Chuck onto a stretcher.

“The tests came back positive this morning. You have KPD. You’re going home.”

A third man entered dressed in the same coat and trousers as Willoughby. He took a cigarette from the pack Chuck had dropped and lit it with Chuck’s lighter. “We’ll fake his death in the morning. Reactor flares vaporize anything that isn’t reinforced ceramic steel, so we don’t even have to drag up a body from processing.”

Willoughby smiled and started following the hovering stretcher down the hall toward the shuttle bay. “Maybe he’ll be a sculptor. He looks like a sculptor, doesn’t he, McGreggor?”

Stephen Failey is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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