Thursday, May 25

Fire Fly chapter 5 Fireground


          
         It was a hazy Monday in June that promised the kind of smothering humidity that makes people cranky, which makes them want to choke the shit out of someone, we will have to fix. Long stretches of calm always make firefighters nervous; like the energy of a volcano building up, waiting for release.
            I arrived late to work after wrangling with a broken fan belt. We got two false alarms followed by a small trash fire. At noon, a neighbor, pulled along by his wife entered the firehouse, holding his hand in a bloody towel. He went to push open a storm door and put his hand through the glass instead, deeply gashing his wrist. Rueben wrapped up his hand tight and told him to get to the hospital to get it stitched up.
            "Yintz aren't taking me there?" he squawked in a thick Pittsburgh accent. Rueben gave him a long suffering gaze and his wife shook her head as she took him by the arm once more and they headed off.
             Rueben had been quiet since my revelation. We managed a professional but strained, relationship. Truthfully, I knew very little about him. He wore a star of David and a cross around his neck and took his dual religious upbringing seriously. Like me he kept to himself, but now he shut me out and I felt like I'd lost a family member.
             I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and change out of a sweaty shirt; the cotton clinging to my shoulders as I peeled it off. Rueben walked in behind me and I saw his reflection in the mirror, his expression impenetrable.
            "What?" I snapped in irritation and turned to face him.  He started to say something but stopped, shaking his head in frustration. Fine, don't talk to me you bastard I thought, as I brushed past him.
            I spent the next hour fixing a door I'd accidently pulled off its hinges during a previous alarm. My strength can get away from me sometimes.
            "Hey you can't do that without union consent," Kaz told me. Like the rest of the crew, I  had little patience with officialdom. Kaz was on track to lieutenant and took himself too seriously. I grimaced at this bit of bureaucratic idiocy.
            "Since when has the union fixed anything around here? What are you going to do, fire me?" I retorted and he retreated under the attack of logic.
            The task calmed me while everyone else sat around restless and sweltering even with all the windows and bay doors open. Relief came when the wind picked up, cooling things off.            
            At four fifteen the alarm went off and it was a big one. Four other units were already there when we arrived. The fire in progress was spreading rapidly through a high rise apartment building.
            "It's the Dupont building," someone said with dread.
            "Holy shit, the whole goddamn building is solid wood," Phil blurted.
              Actually, it had a steel frame sheathed in yellow granite but the interior was famous for its luscious and extensive use of wood. Black smoke flowed out of the windows on the ninth and tenth floors of the eighteen story tower.
            Fortunately most of the tenants were at work, firefighters helped the rest out while ambulances ferried away the injured.
            There is a lot of activity at fires. Commands squawk over the radio, people run around, fire hoses clutter the ground like so much spilled spaghetti, engine pumps drone amid huge puddles of water. It looks chaotic but it's managed chaos.
            I was helping Fisher with the pumper when word came there were some people trapped on the roof. We hate tall buildings because the aerials can't get to the top, making rescues difficult.
            " That shifting wind will make a helicopter rescue dicey," The battalion chief complained to one of the captains as they craned their necks looking up at the roof.
            The two fire escapes were blocked at the eighth floor despite heavy amounts of water being sprayed to keep them clear. I watched as one guy on the eleventh floor descended the narrow stairs, slipped. His hand flinched from the handrail and he hastily retreated to the roof.
            "Shit, how are we going to get them off now?" the chief worried as ideas were offered and rejected from a sea of bobbing red and white helmets.
            I stood still amid the commotion and looked up to see two people lean over the edge of the roof and wave desperately as smoke engulfed them. Captain Fabiano was momentarily arrested by the sight as well and we looked at each other with the same idea. He nodded his head as if to say do your thing.
            While he went to have a very strange conversation with the battalion chiefs, I removed my breathing apparatus and fetched two safety harnesses from the truck.
            "What are you doing?" Kaz wondered as I walked to a clearing near the curb.
            "I don't know but things are about to get real interesting," I said. His eyes widen in sudden realization.
            I took a deep breath and soared into the air, quickly making it to the roof. Upon landing, I saw seven people huddled on pieces of plywood or scraps of metal sheeting. Even in my heavy boots, the surface of the roof was soft and hot-- not a good sign.  I moved gingerly across the melting tar, the risk of roof collapse still fresh in my memory.
            "Thank God for the fire bureau," someone called out. They looked around for a rope or helicopter.
            "How did you get here?" a frightened man inquired.
            "I flew," I replied bluntly.
              The wind shifted suddenly and we were smothered in foul black smoke. Everyone ducked low, coughing and frightened, until the wind changed direction. 
            "There's no time to explain but I can get you out of here if you're willing to trust me. I'm going to fly you over to that building," I said, pointing to a rooftop across the street seven stories lower.
             There was a long pause while their entire reality shifted. A man with his young son balked at the plan. I offered to take the boy but he refused to leave his father. The only woman volunteered and I put the second safety belt on her and attached it to mine. I held her in a bear hug.
            "You might want to close your eyes," I suggested, instead of mentioning that I'd never done this before. She did so and in a minute I deposited her safely to the other roof.

                        *                                                *                                                *
            "We're ready," I could hear our director Dave "the dictator" order sharply in my earpiece,  as I quickly turned down the shrieking volume. Me, and Hal the cameraman, were on the roof of an eleven story office building nearby with a clear shot of the towering inferno. I smoothed my hair, mussed by the stiff wind and nodded to Hal as I listened to the countdown "Four, Three, two, one..."
            "This is Phil Braxton reporting live from the scene of a horrific fire engulfing the historic DuPont Apartments on Stanton Avenue. Fire crews are on the scene working to contain the blaze. There are three reported fatalities with several injured and several tenants are trapped on the roof,"  I ticked off items on my list of facts. In the world of TV news, fires are the Superbowl of stories. Great imagery, high danger, real potential for heroics and tragedies.
            The building was huge, covering half a block. The Dupont had once been glamorous, but over the years became as shabby as the surrounding neighborhood. The first floor was shops and cafes. The rest was quaint, overpriced two and three bedroom apartments in what one inspector described as a bonfire about to happen. The owner and super were in deep shit if negligence was found to be the cause of the blaze.
            "Hal, focus the flames at the ninth floor." Christ, we're pyro voyeurs, I thought as I heard Dave tell the cameraman through the earpieces we both wore. I hated these things and with Dave on the other end it was like having an evil twin on my shoulder. Hal got the shot as I continued my narration and checked my notes as I was now off camera.
            While Hal had a zoom lens on his camera, I had a pair of binoculars to get a clear view of  the roof and saw a firefighter in full gear gesturing to the hostages.
            "Hal zoom in on the people on the roof and--Jesus h," I heard Dave say as we both watched the man hold onto a woman and levitate to a nearby roof top.
            "What the hel--" I started to say.
            "Watch it, your mike is hot," Dave hissed in my ear. I was stunned as the figure flew back and forth carrying people. How the hell was he doing that? Is that guy really flying? Okay I must be high or something and I nudged Hal who, without taking his eyes off the camera, confirmed what we saw.
            Well son of a bitch and a half, this was new. I've been in the reporting business over twenty five years and had never been left speechless until this precise moment.
            "Say something, goddamn it." the director screamed. TV hates dead air-especially with live broadcasting.
            "A firefighter has managed to get to the victims on the roof and is ferrying them safely to a nearby building."  I felt foolish. I was tempted to say fire fairy just to imagine Dave having an aneurysm back in the studio. There was a certain sadistic amusement at the image of his head exploding.
            By now, the public wondered if this was some fantastic movie instead of breaking news  interrupting the last half of The Phil Donahue Show. I was wondering the same thing as I looked through the binoculars to see the guy moved effortlessly through the air without a safety line from a nonexistent helicopter or crane.
            Holy shit, this is surreal. I hopped around excitedly as I watched him set the last pair of survivors down safely.
            "Hal get Phil in the shot," I heard Dave direct and I turned to face the camera, my mind a blank as I stared in shock at the lens. What could I say to describe the historic moment I was witnessing?
             "Say something--" Dave screamed again and my brain kicked into gear.
            " --Ladies and gentlemen there are no words to convey the sheer magnitude of the event unfolding before our eyes today. Either we are witnessing the appearance of a super human or the greatest hoax ever percolated," I said confidentially as I heard Dave groan in relief or annoyance, I couldn't tell.
            "Keep shooting Hal, Phil, we're cutting back to Dell in the studio," Dave informed us.
            What? I couldn't believe that overbearing anchor taking over my story while we're at ground zero. I'll show that teleprompter reading idiot.
            "This is Phil Braxton reporting, back to you Dell,"  as soon as I heard Dave cut back to the studio camera, I yanked out the earpiece and threw it with the microphone into a tote bag.
            "Let's get down there and see what's happening," I told Hal. The fire wasn't the story anymore, that weird flying guy was.

                                    *                                    *                                    *
            It took four trips to get them all. I was momentarily slowed by the effort of carrying the extra weight of father and son as I lifted off. More firefighters arrived on the other roof to help out.
            The last trip included the fellow who had backtracked on the fire escape. He had a serious burn across his hand where he had grabbed the railing. He hadn't slipped, he explained, his thick rubber sole melted from the heat.
            I was exhausted but relieved as I collapsed on a metal milk crate and someone gratefully handed me a bottle of water. Paramedics tended to the injured while three cops kept a news crew from storming the scene. I instinctively turned my face away from the camera.
             Seeing the stairs clogged with personnel I hopped down to the street to report to the captain. Bad idea.
             The area was being evacuated as one side of the building looked like it might collapse. The din rose as trucks and crew were being moved a safe distance away.
            "Anything I can do here?" I volunteered. Fabiano gave me a surprised look.
            "Not with this going on," he said, pointing to a crowd the police were pushing back. Reporters surged the barricades lining the sidewalks. It was the first time I noticed the cameras were focusing on me. Fabiano leaned close to me to be heard over the racket.
            "Go back to the station and we can deal with this later," he urged, waving me to a cop car. He was always thinking ahead. I vaguely knew Officer Morton as I jumped in the front seat and we sped off. 
            He was really tense as I attempted to give him directions while he barreled through traffic. When we arrived at the firehouse he touched my arm as I opened the car door.
            "I hope you're one of the good guys," he said.                                               
             I decided, as I quickly changed clothes, to hide out at Roscoe's place. He was at home recovering from a back injury. He had been stabbed by a gang member who resented his efforts to save a rival. He then fought off two more gang members bent on killing him. He grabbed them by the neck and bashed their heads together. The man was ballsy.
            I knocked on the door and in his usual fashion he flung it open. He stared at me intently.
            "Get your white ass in here, show off," he bellowed. I rolled my eyes in exasperation.             " I take it you've heard about the fire?"
            "Oh yeah, baby you're a star'" He gushed, grinning like a coal black Cheshire cat. He waved to the TV where CNN endlessly replayed images of me flying through the air carrying people.
            I clutched my head in alarm, Oh my God, What will Victoria think of this?

Thursday, March 3

Fire Fly Chapter 4 An Uncommon Man

                     
            The visit from the mysterious flying man left me rattled for days. The page in front of me remained blank as I stared at the typewriter, willing the words to come. Here I was on the verge of quitting the newspaper grind and the biggest story ever drops in my lap. I should have majored in economics like Mother advised.
            This was going nowhere, I sighed in frustration and took another gulp of tepid coffee. I picked up the essay I wrote for the magazine section of the Sunday Gazette and read it again hoping it would jar my brain loose from the writer's block gripping me. I may have been new at reporting but knew how to write an interview. I revised the copy four times before handing it to my editor when he was in a good mood, hoping it wouldn't look ridiculous.
            Al Mackie did not put up with the ridiculous. I watched him read it without correction then he peered at me over his reading glasses.
            "You're fucking kidding right?" Al famously excelled at editing and swearing with equal skill.
            "No, he's the real deal," I assured him, a touch chagrinned. He narrowed his eyes, unconvinced of my assessment.
            "First you speculate this guy is a myth, only to have him conveniently show up on your doorstep where you interview him like Lois Lane, for Christ's sake, and you expect people to believe this?"
            " Well, not when you put that way but I was hoping  you would," I answered, as I watched my credibility crumble. He perched his glasses on his head and leaned his chair back in exasperation.
            " Look Vic, you've been straight up so far, but this is outrageous. I'm going to need verification this is legit," he said, not quite sure where to go with this. Inwardly I fumed but he had a point. Now what?
            "He'll call me in two weeks. When he does, I'll set up a meeting between the three of us and you can see for yourself okay?"  I volunteered. I had no idea if flyboy would go along with any of this but he had to, if I was going to get the story printed.
            "Deal, let me know when," he said, signaling the end of the conversation. We would sit on the story until then.
            I was relieved when he called exactly two weeks later and I explained the situation to him. He wasn't keen on the idea but agreed to the reasonable request. We arranged to meet at a defunct golf course outside of town in a few days. No one else comes and no cameras he demanded.
            You know the feeling you get on a roller coaster as it climbs up the hill- how your anxiety builds until you get to the top before that moment of release? That's how I felt until the next meeting.
             Neil was leaning against his car wearing jeans and a Steeler's jersey when we pulled up in Mackie's car. Frankly I was surprised he did show up, demonstrating for total strangers-journalists no less, had to be intimidating after a life time of secrecy. Mackie unfolded his tall, lanky frame from the car while Henry, our photographer and I emerged from the back seat.
            " I said no cameras." he crossed his arms defensively, ready to end the encounter. Mackie mollified him by waving at Henry to put his camera away which he did reluctantly but remained where he was. There was an awkward pause.
            "How does this work, you need a running start or what?" Mackie asked in a condescending tone I warned him against. Neil regarded us carefully, his half moon eyes squinting in harsh determination. Any misgivings he may have had were instantly replaced with a desire to put Al's haughtiness in its place.
            He gazed out over the wide grassy lawn of the driving range where a line of huge boulders marked the far side. He launched himself a hundred feet in the air and I held my breath. It was a weird and dangerous sight with no turning back. He flew to a boulder, landed on it briefly, then returned to his starting point.
            "Well?"  He prompted after a stunned silence. His show had the desired effect.
            "No one will believe this, no one will believe this, no one will fucking believe this," Mackie sputtered as he paced back and forth.
            "Will you stop saying that," I winced in embarrassment. That was not the reaction Neil expected and his face drooped. He started for his car when I put a hand on his arm.
            "It was very brave of you to come, thank you." I smiled and he gazed at me for a long time before returning it. He turned his attention to Mackie.
            " I hope this satisfies you that Ms. Ball was telling the truth. I would appreciate it if you hold off publishing this story until I inform a few other people first,"  he said. I cringed, that wasn't going to happen.
                         
                           *                                                *                                                *
            The reaction from Mackie made me reconsider this whole revelation idea. I was a jittery wreck after I left the golf course and fretted about how my family, friends and the Bureau would react. Especially the Bureau. I should have gone to the Public Information Officer but decided to see how this played out first.
            I called Victoria and asked to meet her to get a take on all this. Maybe it's not a good idea to be chummy with a reporter, given the love hate relationship between the media and fire departments: the media wants drama and the departments wants accuracy.
             I knocked on her door once more, wavering between doubt and curiosity. She opened it seconds later; her oval face flush from exertion.
            She must have just gotten off work as she was still in a black skirt and a light gray striped shirt that showed off her Mediterranean complexion and curvy figure nicely. A blazer and pair of shoes had been carelessly tossed on a couch which she hastily cleared off as we entered the living room. She added them to a pile of mail on the coffee table, apologizing for the mess which I politely ignored.
            " Thanks for coming, I'd like to get some more background information if you don't mind," she said in full reporter mode as she picked up a notebook and pen.
            "Maybe I should do the same of you," I replied likewise as we sat down across from each other. The couch, like her chair, was a dun corduroy and as worn and comfortable as an old pair of shoes; the arms stained from being used as a napkin.
            "Why did you come to me in the first place?"  she asked, pushing a strand of black hair out of her face with a delicate hand.
            " Because you're the only one I trusted," I answered. I stared into her dark eyes, both of us startled at my unexpected response. Honestly, she was smart, attractive and took me seriously which was good enough for me.
            The smell of fresh coffee from the kitchen caught my attention and she fetched each of us a cup to brush away the awkward moment.
            "So how did you become a nosy journalist?" I asked lightly as I stirred in a teaspoon of sugar.
            "Not at all really. I dislike the 'good old boys' mentality in journalism. This job is just for experience and contacts. What I really want to do is be a publishing editor," she replied. The explanation felt weary from frequent use.
             While she distracted herself with some internal debate, I looked at her apartment for the first time. Along with the couch, the furniture was sparse and practical although most of it was covered with disarray of some kind as if she had better things to do than attend to the clutter.
             The place was dark with a window in the small open kitchen and a sliding glass door at the other end of the serviceable living room. On the wall across from us, hung a diploma from Yale next to several crooked photos above a desk with an electric typewriter.
            "You're not worried about letting a strange man into your house?"  I asked, breaking the long silence. She considered my lame non sequitur with a thin smirk.
            "You're hardly a stranger. I know who you are," she said confidently as she settled back in the chair. She knew my full name, education and work history with the PBF.--the sort of thing on my resume. I should not have been surprised.
            " You like jazz, play the clarinet-- oh and you just turned twenty eight," she said with a wry smile.
            "And you'll be twenty seven in August."  I retorted, having done some snooping of my own.
            "Touche," she said, putting down her cup. After some discussion, it turned out we were both on track teams in high school.
            "Sprint or long distance? " I asked.
            " Cross country --but not for long, the coach was a macho jerk," she answered and we traded familiar training stories. I learned she was born in Paris and raised in Bethseda. Her parents were divorced and her younger brother just joined the Navy.
            "How did you become a firefighter?" she asked, turning the subject back to me. Instead of being cautious, I decided she was entitled to a full picture since I was dragging her in to this haphazard plan. I gazed at the ceiling as I closed in on the memory.
            At nineteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do. College seemed unaffordable but working at Dad's hardware store was stifling. I got a job as a truck driver doing deliveries between Chicago and Galesburg.            
            One day, while frustrated with a long wait in traffic, I got out to investigate. Beyond a roadblock, fire trucks and police cars swarmed around a partially collapsed building in a neighborhood of boarded up houses.
            "Some kids are trapped under the rubble," a cop informed me crisply, holding out a hand to bar me from getting closer.
             I could see firefighters throwing aside big chunks of wall board and cinder blocks in the continued to search for more victims. A trio of firefighters struggled with a large piece.
            My God I could easily move that.  I tried to rush in and help but the cop would have none of it. I glared at him and intended to shove him aside when I heard shouting as the rescuers pulled a kid out and the crisis passed. I watched the scene in a trance and knew exactly what to do with my life.           
            " I can see a straight line from that epiphany to this moment," I said as a curious feeling of self awareness rushed up. Her eyes narrowed as she mentally constructed a narrative.
            "Not everything I say is for public consumption," I said, stopping her thinking.
Victoria gave me an odd look, like I didn't get it.
            "Everyone is going to know your history when this breaks, so you better get used to it," She informed me bluntly. I squirmed in my seat. Once again I had the uncomfortable feeling this was a bad idea and felt the urge to run and hide.
            "Have you talked to anyone else about going public?" she inquired. I shook my head, leaving Roscoe out of the equation. There was an anxious pause as she stared at her cold coffee and I got an ominous feeling.
            "Uh-oh," I groaned as a prompt.
            "Mackie wants to pass on the story."
            "What?" I blurted, incredulous.
            "We know it's true, but he's a conservative journalist and a cautious man."
            "I thought the press loved this kind of story," I said, expressing confusion.
            "Oh they do, the more dramatic, the better. Extreme behavior, the eccentric and the horrible-- all makes for good press," She looked out the rear door for a long time before finishing. "But this one requires-- more than print copy," she said tactfully.
            "What should I do, fly into Three River Stadium in the middle of a ball game and land on home plate?"
            Wow, this was proving to be more troublesome than I imagined. There was no in between, either I make a big reveal or not at all. I crossed my arms impatiently.
            "Superheros never had this problem," I sputtered.
            "This isn't the comics," she replied. I blinked, that's exactly what I once said to Pete.             "Don't worry, when this story breaks the press will be all over you," she said with sardonic humor.
            " And I can kiss my privacy good bye," I sighed. She shook her head.           
            " No, never give up your privacy. Never compromise or answer the unasked question. If you really want the press to ignore you, be boring, they hate that."
            "Actually, I am kind of boring," I said. She gave a small laugh at my modesty.
            " I doubt that highly."
            We discussed the problem a bit further. In addition to the public and press, the government was going to be keenly interested. That hadn't occurred to me and I went into shock at the prospect of powerful, incompetent agents putting their hands on my balls.
            "Maybe you could wear a mask or have a secret identity," she suggested with little conviction. I snorted at the idea.           
            "There would be a race to unmask me. I'll have a better idea what to do after I talk to my parents," I offered.
            "They don't know?" She sat up startled.
            " Kind of, " I hemmed. I planned to visit them in July for the holiday.
            " Don't worry, I don't think anything will happen between now and then. I have all summer to yard this thing out," I said off handedly. 
            Famous last words. 


Sunday, October 11

Shop Talk 1 Get a Job




            “ George, this is Alisa, our new interior detailer. You’ll be working with her a lot.” Stan Mussel introduced me to a creature that looked like a large blue, hairless ape. Stan was owner of Montana Design, a space ship repair and customizing shop.
             George was over two meters tall with four arms protruding from a massive torso. He wiped his lower hands on a rag and stuffed it in the pocket of his black overalls.
            “Nice to meet you,” he said in perfect American English as he extended his lower right hand.
            “Uh, nice to meet you too,” I managed as we shook, his grip was firm with just the right amount of pressure. I had never seen a Chiron up close so this was a new experience for me.
            “Boss, that new gee-gaw for the Swanson is finally here, where do you want it?” George asked Stan.
            “Leave it in the holding bay until I got room for it. Would you finish the tour of the shop while I find out what new crisis Gaga is having,” He was referring to a large black women waving at him frantically through the window of the front office.  He took off before either of us responded.
            George and I exchanged shrugs and we proceeded to the main floor.
            It was an ordinary looking repair shop except it was the size of a airplane hanger. It had a grungy, dirt and oil stained odor to it I found comfortable and familiar. Powerful lights two stories above cast a strong glare on the three bays, several work stations and a huge metal cage off to one side. The place was noisy from the drone of tested engines, pneumatic tools and the industrial strength heating and air circulation systems.
            “You’re not stunned by me like other Terrans working off world,” George mentioned lightly, noticing my nonchalant reaction.
            I smiled at a private joke. Ah yes, my dear, fellow humans completely freaked, to put it mildly, when the aliens of a nearby solar system presented themselves to us at “The Awakening” as it was called. I found the whole thing highly amusing as our species collective ego exploded at the realization that we really aren’t the center of the universe. A lot of religious folks didn’t take it well.
            “After traveling Beyond Light Speed, not much fazes me anymore,” I admitted and he understood. Until recently, Beyond Light Speed, was an intense experience for humans due to the twisting of space-time.
            I stopped to stare at a ship the size of a train engine sitting in the far bay.
            “What?” George noticed my reaction.
            “That’s a class one space tug with twin Boller  V-5 engines used for docking transport barges. What’s wrong with it?” I asked, trying to sound causal yet knowledgeable. I was grateful for the late night cram session memorizing the different types of spacecraft plying the interstellar trade routes.
            “The tractor beam keeps shorting out,” He explained.            
            Ouch. You don’t want the beam to go out on one of these monsters while pushing a 10,000k transport into dock. That’s a messy crash.
            “What do you know about McKinley’s?” he asked and I gave him the same  honest answer I gave Stan during the job interview.
            “Not a damn thing,”
            The McKinley Ion Drive was the top of the line propulsion system favored for their power, efficiency and design. It was the Rolls Royce of long range engines and propitiatory technology. This was only authorized repair shop for them which was a big deal as nobody outside the company knew exactly how they worked. You might as well know how the Klingon cloaking device worked.
            He seemed pleased with my response and I was warming to George. Despite his intimidating size he struck me as gentle and genuinely curious about everything.
            A few minutes later Stan caught up with us and George ambled back to work, giving me a fan like wave with all four of his hands.
            “ George isn’t his real name right?” I asked Stan.
            “Yeah, he has one of those long unpronounceable names like the Indians. We call him that for short. ” he said with a small chuckle.
            “Just a head’s up, we got two Pohl’s working here,” he said causally as we finished the tour.
             The Pohls were natives of the nearby planet. There was a fashion of naming the planets of the newly discovered system after famous science fiction writers. Hence the planets Asimov, Heinlein, LeGuin , Prachett and Pohl, for Fredrick Pohl. The inhabitants didn’t care, they probably did the same sort of thing to us.
            Stan told me to be at the shop tomorrow at 1500 hours at the start of the second shift. I nodded, eager and ready, glad that my part time work was finally paying off.  I liked Stan, he was a fellow Terran with an honest reputation, although one could never be sure out here on the frontier, it was a wild place.
There was a momentary pause as we entered in the cluttered front office/reception area.
            “How did you end up here?” Stan inquired. This is the single, most frequently asked question of everyone.          
             I intended to tell him I was bored as a graphic artist and after arriving, found ship detailing more interesting as it combined my love of machine tinkering with interior design. I never saw furniture, a room layout or gadget that I couldn’t resist redesigning in my head.
            What he really was asking was how I ended up on Mark’s Station. I’m a short, single woman with no special training or experience with space travel and no connection to any of the corporations present on the moon colonized by Terrans. Friends and family were baffled by my preference for an off world life but I loved every single, amazing, utterly different thing about it. It gave me a reason to get up every morning and explore.
            “It seemed like a natural place to be, I have autism so I’m practically alien already.” I said proudly.
            Ain’t that the truth.

"Shop Talk" 2 Meet the Crew

            I was lucky to get a job, an apartment and internet in one day. Like everything else, the shop was in walking distance. I got plenty of exercise, given the difference in gravity, it was like an uphill hike in high altitude.
            The biggest issue interacting with aliens was dealing with everyone’s One Gee: one’s native gravity, atmosphere and sunlight frequency Since Mark’s station was  smaller than Earth the one gee adjusted to somewhere between Earth and Pohl, which was bigger and heavier.
            At 1500 hours sharp I arrived at the shop in jeans, a long sleeve shirt, comfortable shoes, and an extra coat.
            As Gaga, the office secretary, handed me my passkey and ID a loud alarm sounded and a gust of cold air swept in. We reflexively held our noses and blew to pop our ears as the pressure dropped. Even inside the enclosed office you could feel the effect of the Bailey Safety door opening to let in a ship into the rear bay.
            Mark’s Station is an airless moon with an artificially controlled environment. Bringing a ship into the shop requires the use of airlocks and elevators as this city is mostly below ground. Protocols and alarms are strictly enforced to protect everyone from rapid decompression, freezing temperatures and local radiation. Ah, the many dangers of living on a space colony.
            “Don’t forget to wear a hardhat in the red zone,” Gaga reminded me as I headed out to the shop. That was an area marked off with red line painted on the floor where the overhead crane operated. I bypassed it as I stashed my gear in a locker and got to work.
            Aside from Stan and Gaga the other Terran in the shop was Temple, the chief mechanic, a lithe woman with cafĂ© au lait complexion and an intense personality. She does not suffer fools easily as the “three amigos”, Chuck Berry, Johnny B’Goode and Elvis found out.
             Their phony names gave them away as Rogues, immigrants of mixed races from various worlds. They are usually ex cons, mine workers or adventures running from the law. These ones weren’t very bright and I figured they wouldn’t last long. Chuck made the mistake of being an asshole- not uncommon with Rogues.
            “What is your problem?” Temple snapped at Chuck, who was constantly ogling her. He seemed pleased that she finally noticed him.
            “Nothing, my toolbox can’t fix” he leered over the work table.
            “I’d shove you out of an airlock first.” She gave him a withering look. His comrades laughed and continued to rib him as he sulked in rejection.            
            Chuck continued to harass Temple until Stan noticed and fired him. The boss, with his entrenched navy habits, would not tolerate conflict within the unit. The other two took the hint and kept their heads down, although Johnny didn’t keep his low enough.
            When the McKinley engines are tested, they generate an intense magnetic field, too intense if you ask me. We had been warned about leaving steel tools anywhere near the testing cage- a large section of the shop separated by a cyclone fence of aluminum. Sometimes a carelessly laid tool was sent flying and miss someone before crashing against the cage. Sure enough, Johnny was hit in the head by an airborne wrench and knocked out cold. We never saw him again. After that, Elvis always wore a hardhat and was super friendly to everyone.
             The shift crew was reduced to me, Temple, Elvis, George and the two Pohlian, who seemed to never sleep. The Chiron joined us for lunch in the lounge, settling his large frame on a bench, the wood aching under his weight. George scared the shit out of Elvis, I don’t know why, he was the sweetest being I ever met. He gave us a cheerful nod and a smile in greeting as he put his lunch on the table, a keg sized mug of root beer and a sub sandwich from a local deli big enough to feed everyone.
            “Say boss, what’s this gee gaw?” George asked holding up a green vegetable he fished out of the sandwich.
            “It’s a jalapeno pepper, very spicy,” Temple told him. He gobbled the pepper with delight.
            While he chatted amiably with Temple I watched the two Pohlians sit at another table across the room. Imbler and Fet spoke little and communicated with each other in a silent fashion I never deciphered.
            I was intrigued as they sat quietly eating small, jello like squares and drinking a foul smelling liquid from tall glasses. Their movements were slow and graceful but pointedly as artificial as their neat wigs and weirdly colored contact lens. Occasionally their movements would blur momentarily like a film fast forwarded then returned to normal.
            “Man, I just can’t get used to that,” Elvis said, blinking several times and shaking his head. I agreed, their sporadic changes in tempo and stiff human appearance was unnerving.
            The elusive Pohl’s were nice enough to let Mark Fruerstein establish a base on their largest moon and left the settlers alone as they were very reserved. They insisted, however, on having a few of their own around to make sure the Terrans behaved. There was a cordial but cool relationship between the two.
            No human had ever been to Pohl, the heavy gee and toxic atmosphere was too hostile. The Pohl’s however adapted well to the thinner air and low gee of the moon.
             There were five “cities’’ on Mark’s Station, clustered around a convention sized “city hall” as the locals called it, where all interspecies business was conducted.
            The Station was supposedly autonomous but the Pohls’ really called the shots. They were the dominant species of Huxley. Solar systems were referred to by their suns and the silly custom of using writers names persisted.
            Sitting at the lunch table and watching the two alien mechanics piqued my interest once more. I wasn’t close pals with Temple but relied on her to fill me in on technical stuff and the crew. I nudged her with an elbow.
            “What do the Pohl’s really look like?” I asked under my breath.
            “You don’t want to know,” she replied, giving me her patented “don’t go there” glare.
            “Really?” I pushed on.           
            “This is one area you should leave your curiosity unsatisfied,” she answered with a mixture of parental scolding and odd discomfort. I glanced at the pair and wondered. 

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