It was the changes that did it for Jefferson.
They’d told him—warned him, possibly—that the job would be solitary. How do you cope on your own? they asked. What are you like with routine? He’d assured them he’d be fine, that he wasn’t really a people person. And he assured them he was over his previous problems. Said he had no ties on-planet, that a three-year round trip sounded wonderful.
For the first few weeks, it was near-perfect. The huge liner left the elevator terminus, and Jefferson took up his post in the energy room. Bay 16-A, manned 24-7. He shared duties with a small lad named Bilal and an older woman whose voice was so far gone with the smokes that he struggled to understand her. She might have been called Annie, or possibly Randy.
It wasn’t important. He only saw his co-workers at the top and tail of each shift.
The work itself was easy, but Jefferson challenged himself to keep the wave levels as close to dead centre as he could, saw it as a failure if he fell outside five per-cent.
This pleased his supervisor, who Jefferson saw every couple of weeks. Harris was ex-forces, would have rather been hunting pirates, and his injured leg only drove him to work out harder. Tough, but fair. He even tried getting Jefferson to join some of the others for a drink.
Jefferson declined. Work calmed the angry voices, and in his free time he read texts. He ate meals when the galley would be almost empty, and afterwards he’d have a drink on one of the loungers, buds in his ears and eyes closed, letting the music wash over him.
Nothing too strenuous, and no surprises. Jefferson had never felt so content.
* * *
Two months in, they introduced theme days—some ‘festival of dark’ nonsense, and then ‘come to work as a pirate’. Bilal decorated Bay 16-A, and the canteen servers all wore costumes. One of them tried forcing Jefferson to dance, almost spilt his drink on the floor. And the tacky sounds they played interrupted his music, put him on edge.
Then came ‘buddy days’.
Sure, some of the buddies were okay. That young lass, Salma, was quiet, kept herself to herself. Even gave Jefferson a chance to read a bit on shift. But Jordan was a nightmare. No matter how much Jefferson grunted in response, or even blanked the man, he wouldn’t shut up about eight-ball, like he was some kind of expert. And his laugh grated more with every passing minute.
Jefferson complained. Harris told him to man up, said this was how things were now. Jefferson argued that he’s signed up for a solitary job, but Harris was having none of it. You need to be a team player, lad, he’d said. This liner’s not only for you. We work together. And he’d forced Jefferson to return to his post, with a new buddy.
Andre. Old bloke, said he’d done this kind of stint before. Told stories of other liners, as well as private vessels. After a while, the names all merged, and Jefferson nodded along, hearing only noise as he waited for the end of the shift.
The final straw was the training course. Compulsory, Harris said. So Jefferson attended, some corporate room in the liner’s aft. Bottled water on the tables, name badges, large screen over the small stage. A parade of lecturers, or whatever they called themselves, each a carbon-copy of the previous, all using the same droning voice as they played through their presentations.
When Jefferson realised they were training him up on diagnostics, he left the room. Didn’t let the current speaker’s pause slow him down, told the guy on the door he had work to do.
Salma was at 16-A, seemed surprised when Jefferson tried to take over. Said Jefferson needed to see Harris about it.
Jefferson stormed into his supervisor’s office, caught the man resting with his feet on the desk, docu-pad in his hands and a smoke between his lips. The man frowned, didn’t offer Jefferson a seat. Told Jefferson to get back to the course, that Bay 16-A was in good hands. You taught the girl well, Jefferson. Not too surprising—you were one of the best we had.
Jefferson slammed his fist on the desk, yelled that he was being ousted from his job, said he didn’t want to move on. If he’d known this stupid buddy thing was a way of training a replacement, he’d never have agreed to it.
Not your job to agree or disagree, Harris had said, blowing a stream of blue smoke from the corner of his mouth. You’re part of this crew, and you do what you’re told.
* * *
It was at this point the red mist descended, just as it had all those years ago, when Charlie had pushed him too far. But Harris wasn’t so weak. When the enforcers burst in, Jefferson was on the ground, arms pinned behind his back, and Harris’ stale breath on his neck.
* * *
The primary charge was assault, seconded by dereliction of duty and interfering with the operation of the liner. The sentence was six months in the brig. Would’ve been four, but Jefferson insisted he’d been provoked.
The cell was small, with a bed, a desk, and a chair. There was a toilet and sink in the corner. The light turned on at six ship-time, turned off at twenty-one. They brought food three times a day.
They let him have texts, as many as he asked for. He alternated reading with simple exercises, just to keep his body moving. They offered him social time, an hour each day. Jefferson refused.
Six months of solitude, of sticking to the same routine, of having limited contact with anyone else.
This was so much better than Bay 16-A.
Ties Of Love
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