Short story about a machinist, his hopes for the future of his family and his country.
“Señor Russ, I am so so sorry!”
I looked up from the drafting table as Julio's plaintive call drifted into my office. I grabbed the check and carefully maneuvered my wheelchair through the maze of machines cluttering my garage. Once outside saw Julio wearing his most earnest face. Large brown eyes framed by wind-turned hair, freckled skin and thin strands hanging from his chin. I made my decision, took check in hand, and ready for his latest excuse.
“Señor Russ, I am so so sorry I am so so late! The traffic, she was…”
“Julio!” I shut his mouth with a shout. His gyrations drove me nuts, reminding me how many times how I'd rather die rather than put up with this continuous crap. Now he stood in the driveway, dancing in those torn tight jeans and orange muscle shirt, reeking of sweat.
“Julio, I’m tired of your excuses. Take this.” I handed him the envelope. I can’t run a machine shop with idiots. Especially a machine shop in a residential neighborhood.
“Señor, it’s true. A big big accident on the Bush, then, my old lady, she calls, you know, always at the worst time, and she says…”
“Julio!” I barked again. “This is the last straw. You took half a day off yesterday, and today you come in late! I need someone to take the pressure off me, not give me more. You’re …”
“Señor, you don’t understand! My lady, she make me sleep on the couch. So I can’t sleep. Then the neighbor, you know, the man with the big big ass and santa claus tatoo, you know, right here on his breast, he comes banging on the door waking me. Señor, he’s covered in blood! What do I do, I think? I can’t let him inside! Or should I?”
He’s still talking a mile a minute, and I’d lost interest in yet another tragic story of the drama king. I screamed again. “Julio!”
“Si?” He’s startled. Good.
“You’re fired. That’s your last check. Get out!”
“Señor Russ, you cannot do this for only one time!” He looked the check over.
“A dozen times, you holgazán. I’ve been easy on you too long.”
“Señor, you cannot.” Trembling, he stared at the check like a death sentence.
“I can. You’re fired.”
He squints at me with fire in his eyes. “You’re estupido! I don’t need your stupid job. No air condition, no vacation, no health, nothing! You even not thank me for working yesterday!”
“You showed up late and left early yesterday! Get out!”
“Ha!” He poked the check in my face. “You wrote the wrong date. Today is May 6, 2031, not Cinco de Mayo!”
I backed into the garage, watching as he ranted for a few more moments. Then, without admitting defeat, he straddled his battered scooter and with a haughty laugh, putted into the street and out of my life.
I sat a moment, pondering yet another page in life's book. He'd been a promising youngster, at first eager to learn the tricks of micro-machining. My ability to turn ordinary blocks of metal and plastic into intricate mechanical miracles was sought by many. It's a talent that kept me prosperous while working from my home, even though I'd lost both legs long ago. Yet I'd been unable to keep any help longer than a year. My mood blackened. Where did I put that gun?
I turned to reenter the maze when I heard the clopping sound of a mounted officer coming up the drive. They keep a closer eye on my business than I’d like, but it’s not my choice. I recognized Enrique, a shorter chap than most on the beat, but nowhere near as annoying. He's thin and has chiseled features, softened a bit along with his growing belly since he's gotten married. The horse moved close to where I sat and dismounted, taking off his sun helmet and leaning in the shade of the house. The Florida summer sun is unrelenting and cruel.
“Mr. Ferrule? Is everything alright?”
“Officer Gonzalez, of course. Are you staying cool?”
He gave me a sly smile. “Si.”
“Good. Make yourself comfortable.” I turned to enter the office.
“I heard yelling.”
“I fired Julio.”
“The kid? Again?”
“No more. Last time.” I said, moving inside, so he moved around the milling machine to see me. I like Enrique, but didn't want to talk. Every cop I know love to talk. It drives me crazy.
“Another one. The last one, he came back angry. I’ll keep some eyes open for you,” he said.
“Don’t bother yourself on my account. Go home to your bride, Enrique.”
He smiled broadly. “No bother, Mister Ferrule. Good bye.”
The horse clopped down the driveway as I sat in my office, fuming about the futility of humanity drowning in a sea of idiots. I started paying more bills, and hated every one, while the song, Suicide is Painless drifted through my mind.
Five checks passed through my hands before I heard another familiar sound, the short bursts of a standard army truck horn. I cursed and maneuvered out of the office, glanced at the Jesus shrine, then returned to the sweltering heat of the garage door. A young corporal sat in the shade of the back of his box truck, picking his teeth. This kid was tall, very tall, and though he was lean he couldn't be called thin by any stretch of the imagination. His face bulged around his glasses. The soldier smiled and pointed the stick at my head.
“Hey stumpy. Got a new load for ya.” The stick returned to his mouth.
I scowled and contained my excitement. The army provided me with great opportunities unknown to this driver. Today his cargo held a new material never before machined by anyone. It was my job, my privilege to transform this virgin metal into an incredibly precise world within a world. I peered at him again over the rims of my glasses.
“And I have something for you. Give me a hand.” I turned to where some finished parts lay stacked on the pallet.
“Naaaaw, why would ah wanna do that?” emphasizing his drawl in a single breath. I felt my blood pressure rise. He always gave me grief.
“You’re an insolent pig, hillbilly. Give me a hand.”
“Yuuup. Oink, oink. Thass me, Grunt.”
I drew in my breath and reached for the stack of parts I’d finished yesterday. “Here it is, now take them.”
“I ain’t liffin a finger. Welll, essept maybe this one!” He flicked his middle finger and laughed. I cursed, then cursed more.
“C’mon Stumpy, you cn do it.”
I took the pallet jack and maneuvered the pallet into the drive. It took a while, and made for quite a sweat. “Damn Julio,” I kept thinking.
“Here, that’s as far as I move it, hillbilly.” I glared at him through quick breaths. “You don’t have to take them. But it’s your ass gets chewed. Special Forces wants these asap.”
“Stumpy, you be keee-ute when yur angry. Mmm, mmm.”
“Ya know,” he continued moments later, “you mind me of a bowlin ball stuck on a beach ball with eetsy beetsy leetle ping pong ball eyes.” He laughed so hard I imagined him choking on his own tongue. He recovered and resumed working.
I’d retreated into the shade of the garage, watching him move the boxes into the truck as if they were heads of lettuce. Strength and youth, things I had once. Only my arms retained muscle, and even those wasted away as I relied on limb assist devices more every year.
He finished in short order, then carefully moved several new boxes onto the empty pallet.
“Thanks fer the load, Gramps. Here’s yours!”
“Move it over here, Corporal!” Trying to pull rank on him, trying to get him to help. I didn’t want to work up another sweat moving those metal blanks from the pallet back into the garage. I glared at him without anger, yet laughter greeted me yet again.
“Sure. Gotta go! Love ya!” He bounced into the front of the truck, and after gunning the engine, roared down the driveway and into the cul-de-sac.
I spent the next half hour moving the raw material blanks from the drive into the garage, near the machines that would process them. The last small box I took into my office. This was a new nano-engineered alloy of titanium, copper, lead and sulfur that no one knew about. New territory, but it's my specialty. Having a machine shop buried in the heart of residential Titusville meant that the military could give me projects that couldn’t be kept secret in the heart of the Pentagon. Our Special Forces main weapon was failing in the field - and the army needed my expertise to fix the problem. This new material combined with my ingenuity should be the answer. The fact that I earned the purple heart and had a son in the Air Force didn’t hurt either. I thought about Frank as I pondered these slugs. Angry, tired, sweaty, and now feeling lonely, hearing his voice would be a welcome pleasure. I prayed for the day when he would work by my side, grow the business, and take the burden off my back. I dialed.
“Russ. It’s a bad time.”
“Yeah, it usually is. Look, Frank, I got rid of another kid. No one has machine sense any more. I hate to say this, Frank. I’m getting tired.”
“Russ, this really is a very bad time. We’re doing last-minute lobbying like crazy for the Mars Exploration and Colonization funds. I can’t help you, so talk to mom.” Then click as he hung up.
Mars. My childhood dream became Frank's. I smiled and wished we could have talked longer. Like it’s ever been a good time to talk to him. As a teenage athlete and scholar he spent all his time in the stadium or the library. Inheriting my once-rugged features and Mae's blond hair and blue eyes meant constant popularity. The last time he came home was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving! My anger mounted. I was surrounded by idiots! I couldn’t find help, even when I begged! Damn!
I tried to rest a few moments, getting my thoughts back around the problems of the day. Parts to make, machines to fix, supplies to buy, appointments to confirm. I didn’t get past the first of these before the ball-and-chain threw the door open, letting the heat and humidity flood into the office. She gave me one of her dagger stares and said, “Why did you call Frankie?”
Frank took his first breath while I was on my second tour. She still calls him Frankie, and she knows I can't stand it. “You mean, Frank? How’d you know, anyway?” MaeBelle was a babe when we met, but none too swift. For a young soldier, her smile, yellow sundress and drawl were enough. Now she reminded me of a baobab tree draped in a parachute. If she was an ounce under 200 pounds today I’d learn skydiving.
“He knows you can't control your temper whenever you speak, and neither can he. You two are so alike it's not funny. He said you moaned about firing Julio. Did you?”
I turned, looking at the yellow slug. I mumbled, “Julio’s an idiot.”
“He’s the best worker you’ve had in 10 years! Why did you bother Frankie?”
“I called him, because. Do I need a reason?”
“Do you know what he’s doing? He's fighting for the very Mars Base you and he dreamt of. He’s on Capitol Hill right helping Senator Sanchez get every possible vote. God, you are such a moron!” She slammed the house door behind her, leaving the office door open.
I fought my way to the door, closed it, then settled down to concentrate on the new project when the door slammed open again. MaeBelle stood there in some kind of mu'umm'u and huge ugly sunglasses.
“I’m going to Jordan’s. There’s a can of soup in the cupboard.” Slam.
Jordan was this decorator she’d been hanging around with for the past few years, and for all I cared they were screwing around. At least she closed the door.
I hunched over the new metal, pondering the cylindrical slug. For years I’d been talking with the engineers preparing it, yet nothing compared to holding the real thing. It fit comfortably in my pudgy hands, so I pondered it for a moment. The universe had never seen this collection of atoms. Mostly titanium, a good portion of copper, a pinch of sulfur and trace amounts of others in the right crystalline framework resulted in a metal far stronger than steel, as slippery as teflon, and more resistant to the effects of heat than glass.
I freed my mind to penetrate deeper within the soul of this warm metal. Each atom forged in the heart of dying stars, then gathered by quickening planets. Humans harvested the elements, sorting them by weight and filling the periodic table. Yet mankind remained discontent, mixing the elements in endless combination, barely scratching the surface of what is possible. This slug, this star shard, had been conceived in the mind of a single man, forged by neurons alone and translated by him into reality by teams of technicians in their own hellish ovens.
I polished the flat granular surface to a mirror finish, revealing a deep yellow dusky hue. Dull, yet unforgettable. Not like that of gold or the setting sun. More like the dying rays of pure sunlight growing cold in deep space. I closed my eyes and thought about Mars again.
Shaking myself into the present, I reminded myself of my job. This material was deemed so important by the army that every chip would be returned. One machine would run these parts, and that by dry machining only. Nothing but the best diamond coated tools would be used, they would also be delivered as part of this experiment.
I checked the data sheets again listing a hundred parameters, yet much remained unknown. That’s why they come to me. What the scientist creates the tradesman must shape into service. This piece would become an intricate mechanism complete with moving parts buried within its core. I drew inspiration from Asian craftsmen carving spheres within spheres. Using tricks known only to me I could accomplish in an hour in metal what it took them days to accomplish in wood.
I opened the safe, removing my swiss standard tools. The pale blue box of diamond coated tooling cost more than this house. I smiled, choosing the exact tool as a surgeon selects a scalpel.
Moving to the machine, note pad ready, I fixed the tool and clamped the part, then told the machine how fast to spin, how quickly to move across the surface, and how deeply to engage the star shard. Too shallow and the work would require months to complete. Too deeply and the tools would break, costing the army both time and money. Setting the depth to one quarter of the diameter of a hair, I read the resulting power consumption curve off the machine, the heat of the tool and the part, then waited for them to cool before starting the experiment again – and again.
Hours later I finally came to the trial where the heat built up in the tool so quickly that I had to terminate the pass immediately. It was too late. The tool shattered, but it had not given its life in vain. For in this methodical way I solved another mystery of this star shard. I knew its personality, what speeds it liked, and what feeds it did not. So ended my data collection.
Starting from the model generated by the designers, then accounting for the capabilities of machine and tools, I removed the unwanted material in such a way that the remaining material performed exactly as intended. One tool after another gently stroked the star shard. Like a surgical team, my machine deftly switched hands and tools, cutting here, drilling there, filleting and chamfering and deburring like a well choreographed ballet.
The combined dream of a dozen engineers became tangible right before my eyes. An incredibly complex mechanism appearing like a spider holding two marbles with six of its legs, while eating an ice cream cone with the remaining two.
I tenderly removed the part, as when I first held my infant son. Never before in the history of man had this tiny machine within a machine ever existed.
Equally gently I placed the part in the metrology machine, where every surface, every hole, angle, plane, every single point had to be placed inside a tenth of a human hair’s thickness. This meant the temperature, the air pressure, even the vibrations from the milling machine were taken into account. The part was perfect.
Finally, I turned my attention to the metal chips. Like an expert hunter, a seasoned machinist knows that metal chips are the scat of metalworking. These were beautiful: Spectacular spirals, piercing needles, and hair-like wisps littered the machine bed. Each a lovely reminder of the star that had first given them birth - whispers of what they’d been.
I picked the part off the metrology table and pondered it deeply. This thing I’d created was a rapid-fire repeat delay for the traditional FN-P91, the latest submachine gun passionately adopted by Special Forces. Originals were made by Fabrique Nationale out of a specially engineered high-impact plastic; but not good enough for SF. My part was stronger, lighter, and would provide a higher degree of accuracy. And five hundred were going to be made.
I leaned back. Five hundred. Each gun firing bullets designed to pierce body armor similar to what I’d worn years ago. I suddenly wished I didn't know what they were for. I wished they were for anything else. Why couldn't they help us reach for Mars?
I stared at the Jesus shrine looking for answers. Instead of answers my gaze was met by the empty stares of my buddies: Tonio, Bob, Jimmo, and my best friend, Johnny. We’d trained together, drank together, even met our wives in the same bar on the same night. Married them in a double wedding and honeymooned in the same hotel an entire weekend. Frank got conceived that very week.
I smiled. We called him Johnny the Freak in basic training. On that fateful day he’d been driving, while I’d been working spotter for the turret gunner. We ran lead for the Halliburton convoy on a highway that had just been cleared. Our IED was one of the first big ones, and it took out everyone below. Gunner came off clean, but messed up his head. I was opposite. My head’s ok, but I left most of my legs and groin in Baghdad.
The docs in Germany were great. They got my stumps to work well enough, and rebuilt my pecker so that I could pee regular. Gave me a testosterone pump, but I quit years ago. What the hell do I need with testosterone today?
I put the RFRD down, and thought about the world. Middle East in chaos, the Koreas declared war, and South America sucked US troops into the mud. The draft started again a while ago, along with talk of mandatory conscription, like in Israel. I looked through the office window at a poster I kept near the garage door. An illustration of a Martian city, full of a hopeful humanity. I’d had that poster since forever. It was a dream of Johnny and I shared since we were kids. A dream I instilled in my son, another way for Johnny to live on.
I sighed, my decision made. Living became more painful than the alternative. I closed the house and garage and lifted myself onto my scooter. Moments later I motored into the Wal-Mart parking lot, stopping a moment to appreciate the setting sun’s illumination of the entire store front. Blazing deep red rays turned the orange stucco into a fiery portal. I thought of the black cloud crossing my soul, and wondered if Hell looked as inviting and foreboding. There's a line that can be crossed in every life, and I felt that crossing this threshold represented my commitment to ending mine. I bit my lip and continued.
After getting through security I traded my scooter for their motoped. I headed straight for the hunting section and bought 50 NATO rounds. I hadn’t fired my AR for years. It's fitting that my last act would be to use it on myself.
Back on my own scooter I’d made it across the parking lot when my phone demanded attention. I stopped to answer.
“Russ?” Frank? He never calls me. My heart beat faster.
“Son? MaeBelle told me you were busy.”
“Yeah.” A long silence, but I’m good with silence.
“We lost everything. The politics and the backstabbing is ridiculous. It’ll be in the news.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say Frank. Keep trying?”
“No, no, no. You don’t get it. This was our last stand. Mars expeditions are shut down. We’re not going to colonize Mars, at least, not in my lifetime.”
Silence for a long time, so I said, “Now what, Frank?”
“I’m out of a job.”
I wait a while longer, then said, “C’mon home. We’ll talk.”
Another few seconds went by, then I heard a click. My heart beat a mile a minute. I turned, and there above the store hung Luna and Mars. I smiled and thought to myself, "Let the Chinese and Indians have ‘em. I’m going in for ice cream."