Davis looked up from his crossword puzzle to the flickering security screen. One of the manufacturing droids on the assembly line had fallen to the floor again. The collapses had been happening with an increasing frequency that had become routine and unlike the first time, Davis didn’t feel the fluttering panic of the unknown but a dull irritation that it had cut into his lull time.
He pressed the comm for the Repair Department.
“Hey Jarold, we’ve got another one down.”
Static for a moment, what sounded like bungling into chairs, and then Jarold came onto the comm screen. He pulled at the hem of his shirt. It was riding over a paunch that had been growing exponentially since Davis met the man three years ago when he’d first been hired.
“Which floor is it this time?”
“The assembly unit in Zone 4.”
“You know that’s not my jurisdiction, Davis. Why don’t you call Reinhardt?”
“He’s on paternity leave.” Davis checked the daily roster. “There’s no one else except Alice and she’s been assigned offsite to deal with another nuclear leak.”
Jarold hunched his shoulders. “We’re talking minimal containment, right?”
Davis tapped the Geiger counter by his hip. He’d bought it on his own after the last meltdown scare even when the company hadn’t reimbursed him. “No need for special suits yet.”
Jarold shrugged, loosening his arms. “Well, I don’t have anyone else, so I’ll need you to come down and help me get the droid to scrap.”
Davis glanced at his security monitors; a stray cat prowled at a respectful distance from the electrified fence and droids in Zone 6 were assembling tank parts. The bathrooms were empty. There was no one at the canteen.
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
* * * *
They stood loosely over the prone machine while the other workers went about their business.
“It’s burnt out.” Jarold whistled, peeling back one of the droid’s eyelids. The droid was about half the height of the other ones, with a heart-shaped face and tawny-haired – maybe a former leisure model, a playmate for the Elite’s children.
“Its nose is bleeding.”
“So life-like that it’s scary right?” Jarold grinned.
“Why don’t you try repairing it this time?”
“Most of it’s flesh.” Jarold prodded the android with one foot. “I’m a mechanic, not a doctor, besides, there’s a new batch coming in from the conquered colonies soon.”
They heaped the droid onto a trolley and rolled it outside to a special dumpster near the electrified fence. Davis fought the urge to gag when they lifted the lid and dumped in the droid. Sanitation would come by for pickup at the end of the week.
They leaned against the container. Jarold offered Davis a Marsoli.
“Thanks,” Davis murmured, trying to still the shake in his fingers as he pulled out a lighter and ignited the cigarette. “They even smell like they’re rotting.”
“Makes us clear them out faster when they go down,” Jarold said. “You’d be surprised at what the eggheads think up. You can really get fooled.”
“Fooled,” Davis echoed. He closed his eyes. He focused on the smoke, on each inhale and exhale until his heart calmed, steady and without disquiet, and that other stench went away. “Yeah, fooled.”