Damn, the exoskeleton was hot. Two minutes strapped into the smart harness with its thick exospine and the oversized, carbon-fiber limbs that grew from it, and sweat pooled between Jenna’s shoulder blades, over her own spinal column. The whole thing hummed with electronics and throbbed with support motors. Nothing like the black top, mini skirt, and sneakers she’d worn on her previous job, waiting tables and tending bar at Lazy Dog’s.
But the pay was three times what she made in tips, and she had the evenings to herself.
She was moving up in the world.
Jenna raised her thick new arms in front of her, closed and opened her fists, rotated her wrists, wiggled her fingers. Her robotic hands enlarged her motions, each finger lined with a flexible pad for a non-slip grip.
The clear visor of her hard hat displayed the specs. Lifting capacity: 400 lbs.
Holy shit, she was strong.
If Paps were still around, he’d be both horrified and impressed. He’d worked the docks all his life, loading and unloading endless trucks of e-commerce goods and wrecking his back in the process, before exosuits became “cost-effective.” All to give her a roof over her head and some measure of security at a time where robotics and AI were turning the job market upside down. He wanted her to have a nice, clean office job and wear a suit to work.
Well, she was wearing a suit all right. Just not the kind Paps imagined.
Anyway, she wasn’t cut out for office work. Couldn’t imagine anything duller than sitting at a desk in a cubicle no bigger than a port-a-john and staring at a computer all day.
“What the hell are you doing?”
A grim-faced man stepped in front of Jenna. Piercing blue eyes under black hair peppered with gray. No exosuit, but judging by the way his muscles bulged and roped under his long-sleeve tee, he’d worked construction for a while. He held a tablet in hand. “You don’t move until I tell you to move. I’m still linking you up. Got it?”
She’d forgotten her Mech trainer.
His name was Daron, and he’d looked pissed from the moment she’d walked into the hangar this morning, after onboarding in the office trailer—an entirely computerized process that consisted of a rudimentary quiz on safety rules, followed by two dozen electronic forms, half of them the company’s liability waivers. He barely spoke to her as he helped her suit up and run system diagnostics, and now he jabbed at his tablet, a permanent scowl etched into his face, like her very presence was a lousy joke.
“What’s your problem?” Jenna snapped.
That got Daron’s attention.
He looked up at her, gaze sharp enough to slice metal. “My problem? Right now, you’re my problem. I have five houses to print this week, a rig that can handle two, and I’m a man short. I need a real Mech, with experience on the job. Remind me, sweetheart, how much experience have you got?”
Jenna bristled. Sweetheart? Was this guy for real—or messing with her?
So she was new—fine. But her tech certificate required sixty hours of VR practice, and she’d clocked in ninety-four and aced all her tests, on top of a hectic schedule at Lazy Dog’s. She busted her ass to get here. A little appreciation would be nice.
“My name is Jenna,” she corrected. “And if we’re as busy as you say, why are we wasting time standing around here talking? Give me a job to do. I’m a fast learner, sweetheart.”
Daron’s eyes widened and his lips twitched, his face a fraction less menacing for a second. But then the scowl was back in place. “Okay, Jenna. I see you’re eager to get out there. Super. But I still need to know one thing. Your number one job qualification, and not something I can look up in your file.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
The Mech stared her in the eye. “Are you going to lose your shit when something goes wrong?Yes or no? Because my crew are out there, and I don’t want anyone hurt on my watch.” He pointed his thumb at the open gate of the hanger and a dusty office trailer baking in the sun. “So if you can’t handle the heat, do us both a favor and quit right now.”
Jenna clenched her teeth and glared. What a dick. Was that supposed to scare her? He wouldn’t be the first to try. “Sorry, I’m not much of a quitter,” she snapped.
“Is that right? I guess we’ll find out.” Daron rotated his arm, the tablet unused for the moment, and jabbed a quick pattern on the touchscreen strapped to his forearm. “And speaking of safety. See that faint lock icon in the upper right corner? It’s a motion override. You try anything stupid, and I’ll freeze your ass.”
Jenna glanced at the icon, indignant. She knew about the safety feature. It was for emergencies only. She was about to tell her trainer to go ahead and try it, see what happened, when a loud metal bang shattered her thought.
Another Mech—a woman in a full suit—had just brought her massive carbon-fiber fist in contact with the gate. Her hard hat was in her other hand. Tattoos swirled up her shaved head and sweat glistened on her throat. “Daron, you coming? We need you to QC.” Her eyes moved to Jenna. “Who the hell is this?”
“Hi, I’m Jenna,” Jenna said quickly. “I’m new.”
“No shit,” the woman answered, then banged her fist on the gate again. “Come on, boss. Chop, chop. It’s getting hot out there.” And she was gone.
Daron tossed away his tablet and suited up in record time, cursing fiercely as he did, although his annoyance seemed no longer aimed at Jenna. Then he spun around and marched toward the gate without another glance in her direction, his movements swift and limber despite the added bulk of his exosuit.
Jenna stared at the obsidian vertebrae of his exospine, irked at being ignored, then hurried after him, her own gait clumsy and lumbering.
Her trainer didn’t ignore her completely, though, because his carbon-fiber arm shot out, halting her progress, a second before she ploughed through a utility cart loaded with equipment.
“Watch it,” he barked, frowning at her through his visor.
“Okay. Sorry.” Her cheeks warmed. In her previous job, she could slip through a crowd with a tray full of drinks balanced above her head and never spill a drop. But she didn’t even notice the cart.
Daron shook his head, then stepped out of the hangar and onto the main road. Jenna followed, her visor darkening against the harsh brightness of late morning sun. Gravel crunched and popped under her carbon-fiber boots as she walked.
At first glance, the construction site made Jenna think of a giant sandbox. The desert at the edge of the city stripped of all brush and flattened, with only an occasional saguaro or desert willow still left standing, and a tangled band of prickly pears marking the perimeter. A row of gray rectangles rose out of the ground like sand molds pressed down by a child’s hand. A faint ring of pink and blue mountains wavered with heat in the distance.
Cute, Jenna thought. Like one of those battered, second-hand picture books Paps used to read her when she was a kid.
But as soon as she turned her head, the 3D printing machinery ruined the illusion.
A massive, moving steel frame squatted over one rectangle, which marked the foundation of the house. One tall vertical pillar in each corner, each pair connected by two parallel horizontal bars, with another perpendicular bar rapidly sliding alongside them. Mounted on the fast moving bar was a bulging print head, pointing downward and ending in a nozzle that glowed hot. The nozzle spit out a continuous line of goo on top of the short, curved wall already standing, layer by layer drawing the new house into existence.
Even with their exosuits on, the machine towered over the human crew.
Definitely not a toy. Plus it stank like spoilt eggs.
Jenna’s nerves prickled. What had she gotten herself into? But she’d never been in the habit of letting fear or self-doubt dictate her options, and she wasn’t going to start now.
“Boss. Over here.” The woman with the shaved and tattooed head, now covered by a hard hat, waved Daron over. She and another crew member—a heavyset guy wearing a bright orange tee and a hard hat, no exosuit—were bending over a bulky computer resting in an open hard case on a tall storage box. “Something’s not right.”
Daron groaned and hurried ahead, but Jenna stopped, her eyes drawn to the fast-moving print head that was just rounding the curved front corner of the house, adding another layer of the reddish goo. The house had no sharp corners, inside or outside. Here and there, short tubes were snuggly sealed into the walls, for the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems to be installed later.
As Jenna watched, mesmerized by the printing process, the nozzle reached a break in a straight stretch of the wall and smoothly reversed direction. A window, she guessed. The wall already rose to her waist. Up close, the goo looked like stacked rolls of red clay that matched the color of the ground she stood on. She’d expected concrete but clay made more sense. A local, natural material would be cheaper and more sustainable.
Good. The city badly needed more affordable housing.
It wasn’t physical labor that had killed Paps. Stress had done it—the ever-increasing rent and threat of eviction gnawing at his heart muscle and chewing through his arteries month after month and year after year, as he hustled to squeeze more mileage out of the same meager paycheck, until one morning, his heart gave out. If they could have bought a cheap, 3D printed house, like the one she was looking at, Paps would have still been alive.
The old anger flared in Jenna’s gut, but she pushed it down. Paps was gone. Nothing she could do for him now. Except to build some houses for families who badly needed them. Paps would have liked that.
She stepped around the corner pillar, still watching the nozzle—and came face to face with another Mech in a full suit.
The Mech stood inside the house, in the open space that looked like a living room, their own gaze fixed on the nozzle and a handheld device in his robotic fingers aimed at the line of clay that flowed from it. Monitoring the temperature and moisture content of the layer, maybe? Both mattered for the print quality and the length of the curing process, Jenna recalled.
The Mech, at least a head taller, blinked at Jenna over the half wall. A magenta mouth framed by a neatly trimmed goatee twitched. “So you’re the newbie, huh? Ever printed anything before?”
“Only veggie burgers, and they were god-awful,” Jenna answered truthfully.
“Shit,” the Mech said.
But the Mech wasn’t talking to her. “Kill it!” they yelled over Jenna’s head. “Uruk! KILL IT NOW!”
It was too late, though.
The nozzle choked, coughed, and sputtered, and the neat line of reddish clay thinned and then broke up into a handful of dark, chunky turds, just as a new, more foul stink—rotting fish and burned rubber this time—hit Jenna’s nostrils.
Uruk must have heard the alarm, because the massive printer froze a moment later.
“No, no, no.” Magenta Mouth peered at the turds in horror, craning their neck to see around the print head that blocked their way. “They’ll stick if they dry.”
Jenna hesitated, not wanting to do any damage to the uncured wall, but the Mech’s urgency was infectious.
“I’ve got it.”
With three quick steps forward, she shaped her hands into claws—the thumb against the other four fingers—and started picking off the turds from the wall and tossing them behind her.
To her relief, the robotic extensions of her fingers were less clumsy than she’d expected, although definitely not designed for the delicate task. She ended up accidentally smooshing half of the soft, barely crusting clumps and getting clay all over her robo-gloves.
The last turd hit Daron’s exosuit in the chest, promptly melting against the carbon-fiber shell warmed by the sun.
He glanced down at the clay on his suit, then glared at her. “Didn’t I tell you not to touch anything?”
She lifted her chin and stared back. “No, I don’t think you did, actually.”
“Well, I’m telling you now.” His voice was hard, irritation grating like rusted gears. “Don’t touch a thing unless I tell you to. You haven’t been trained, and we don’t have time to redo any walls because you can’t keep your hands to yourself.”
Jenna sucked in her breath.
She just saved his stupid wall by picking off the turds, and she did a good job too, barely disturbing the still pliable roll of the previous layer. Thanks to her, they didn’t have to redo anything. Just add a new layer as soon as whatever was wrong with the print head was fixed.
Not that she expected a show of gratitude. A simple thank you would be enough. Instead, it felt like Daron was going out of his way to piss her off.
But why would he try to get rid of her? She was a fast learner, she hadn’t lied about that. And if there was one thing Paps taught her, it was that anything worth doing was worth doing well. She wasn’t afraid of hard work. She just needed a chance to prove it.
“Okay. So how about—” Jenna started.
But Daron turned his back on her and addressed Magenta Mouth. “Irelyn. What do you think?”
Irelyn shook their head. They were ignoring Jenna too. “It was a sudden spike. So not the clay mix. The heatbreak or the cooling fan would be my guess.”
Daron nodded. “Uruk thinks it’s the fan too.” He frowned at the print head suspended from the steel bar. “I hope so. The fan would be an easy fix. We have a replacement. Skye went to fetch Khalil.” He turned and called out. “Uruk? Can you move the print head to the origin and shut down the system? We’re going to get her down and take a look.”
A musical, three-tone whistle rent the hot air—an acknowledgment and a warning.
Where was the origin? Which corner of the frame? Jenna tensed, ready to duck if the print head moved toward her.
But Daron threw her a grim glance, and she stayed where she was, strangely reassured. He may want her gone, but he wouldn’t let her get hurt. She wasn’t sure how she knew this, but she trusted her gut feeling.
The machinery sprang into motion again, the print head lifting straight up, as if to avoid invisible obstacles, then retreating to the end of the horizontal bar, as the bar itself travelled along the parallel support bars to the opposite corner of the frame. There, the print head descended to an easy reach and stopped.
The printer sighed—a deep, eerily human sound, like a worn-out worker catching a break, rather than motors and fans powering off—and went still.
Daron and Irelyn hurried toward the print head, and Jenna followed.
Two more Mechs in full suits joined them, a trail of dust marking their path from the hangar. The woman with the shaved, tattooed head—Skye—carried a cardboard container, slicing it open with her robotic finger as she walked. The short, dark-skinned guy—Khalil—lugged a huge red toolbox. He set the toolbox down, then deactivated his exosuit and stepped out of it before throwing the box open and grabbing a bunch of tools.
Uruk was the last to arrive, at a heavy jog and huffing from exertion, the computer case clutched under his arm.
What followed made Jenna think of an emergency field surgery—except the patient was a machine.
A work table was wheeled closer and locked in place; the print head dismounted from the support bar and disassembled; the component parts examined for damage. Clay, instead of blood, crusted the nozzle and clogged the internal tubing, although the odor was just as potent.
When Khalil was done, they all leaned over the disassembled print head.
Jenna’s VR training hadn’t covered repairs, so she had only a vague idea of what she was looking at, but the somber mood told her plenty.
“Dammit. It’s not the fan,” Daron said. “We don’t have an extra heatbreak, do we?”
“Sorry, boss. Not this type,” Khalil said.
“We could try a substitute,” Irelyn offered.
“I have an old spare we could modify,” Skye said. “It won’t be a perfect fit but it’ll do the job.”
But Daron shook his head. “Too risky. We need the real thing.”
Uruk was furiously typing on the computer.
“An express drone can be here in an hour. But it’ll put us over budget.” He hesitated, sweat glistening above his upper lip and on his neck. “I could put in a priority request to—”
Daron waved his robo-hand dismissively. “Don’t bother. It’ll take them a week and a shitload of emails, and they’ll still reject it.” He clenched his jaw. “Deduct it from my pay. We’re going to finish this house by sundown.”
“You got it, boss,” Skye said. “But we’ll all pitch in. Yeah?”
Nods all around. They didn’t look happy about it, but nobody hesitated either.
Khalil grinned, breaking the tension. “Maybe we’ll get a bonus this time. It’s not impossible.”
Skye chortled. “A bonus? I’m not selling myself cheap. I want a proper raise, dammit.”
“Hell, yeah. A raise and a company hovercar.” Irelyn pursed their magenta lips. “I’m sick of taking the train. I swear, it always smells like someone took a piss in it.”
By now, they were all chuckling. Except their boss, who still looked grim and preoccupied as he turned to Uruk. “You put in the order?”
“Sure did. Forty-eight minutes to delivery.”
Daron heaved a sigh. “Okay. Thanks, Uruk.”
Jenna moved a step closer, the motors of her exosuit whirring, and cleared her throat to get their attention. “I want to pitch in too,” she said.
The majority reaction was widened eyes and raised eyebrows. Only Darren’s eyes narrowed behind his visor.
“That’s a generous offer,” he said, voice cold as ice. “But I have a better idea. Did you know that if you quit right now, before lunch, the company still has to pay you for the whole day? It’s the law. You should take advantage of it.”
Heat rushed to Jenna’s face, above and beyond that produced by the hot desert sun. She didn’t care if Daron was her boss. She’d trained plenty of wait staff and a few bartenders too, and this was bullshit. “Wow. You know what? If this is how you train new crew, I’m not surprised you’re short-handed and behind schedule.”
Someone clicked their tongue, a small tribute to her boldness.
But Daron was not amused. “If it was up to me, you wouldn’t even touch that exosuit for the first week. Not until you learned what we do here and how to handle yourself so no one gets injured.”
Jenna stared in confusion. That was why Daron was upset? Because she wore her exosuit? “That doesn’t make sense,” she blurted out. “The exosuit makes me safer.”
“Wrong,” her boss growled. “And the fact that you believe it tells me you’re not ready to wear it.”
“Speaking of lunch,” Khalil interjected.
But for once, Daron’s attention was fully on Jenna.
“Then why do I have it?” Jenna challenged, but with less certainty. “Why are you wearing one?”
“The suit lets you work harder. Lift more. Finish the job faster. But it doesn’t automatically make you safer. You got that?” From behind his visor, Daron’s eyes drilled into Jenna. “Not until you get used to it and learn how to use it. And not in some nice, clean simulation—but out here, on the job site, where it’s hot and dusty, and one mistake can cost you an arm or a leg.”
Jenna held his gaze. “Then teach me, instead of telling me to quit,” she said hotly. “I want to learn, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Daron studied her. “You want to learn? You’re sure?”
“Yes!” Impatience grated on Jenna’s nerves. How many times did she have to say this?
“Boss,” Skye piped in. “We should break for lunch before the drone gets here.”
Daron nodded at his second in command. “Great idea.” Then turned back to Jenna. “Okay. Your first lesson starts in five. And the topic is…”
“Self-control?” Jenna bristled. “Can you be more specific?”
She was hoping for something more technical. Unless her boss was just pulling her leg.
But Daron had already turned away and was marching toward the hangar, his carbon-fiber-reinforced boots crunching the gravel and stirring a cloud of reddish dust. The rest of the crew followed.
“Not freaking out,” Skye said to no one in particular as she passed Jenna.
“Grace under pressure,” Irelyn added.
Khalil was just strapping into his exosuit. “Hydraulic pressure.”
Uruk snorted, then threw Jenna an apologetic glance and hurried after the others, jogging to keep up with their mechanically lengthened strides, his computer under his arm.
Jenna glared at the three carbon-fiber spines and the orange t-shirt. Her new boss and crew mates were really pushing her buttons.
Whatever. The best strategy was to ignore the jabs.
Inside the hangar, clearly visible through its open front gate, Skye, Irelyn, and Khalil were already out of their exosuits, the hard hats gone. They crowded near the small fridge, then carried their lunch containers and water bottles to a beat-up table with a bench on each side.
Uruk hit the fridge and hurried to join them.
One by one, the crew snuck out the back door, no doubt to use a port-a-john.
Jenna’s bladder tensed as she neared the hangar. She could use the restroom herself.
But first—where was her boss? She had more questions about that lesson.
Daron stood off to the side when she entered, his exosuit and hard hat gone.
He glanced at her, then hit a switch on the wall. A large fan opposite the table shuddered to life, the head slowly rotating side to side.
Jenna stopped when the breeze brushed her. The breeze was warm, but it still felt wonderful after the blazing, oppressive heat outside, and so did the shade. She closed her eyes and held still.
“Okay,” a voice said.
Jenna’s eyes flew open, just in time to see her boss lowering his hand, the touchscreen on the inside of his forearm still lit up. Was he speaking to her?
But Daron was already walking to the fridge. He grabbed his lunch, then crossed to the table where his crew were busy shoveling food into their mouths and washing it down with water.
“Uruk, can you keep an eye on the delivery updates?”
“Sure.” Uruk pulled his computer case closer, cracked it open, and started typing with one hand while holding a sandwich in the other.
Jenna watched the group grudgingly. Weren’t they going to invite her to join? She was hungry too, she needed to pee, and she was going to need help taking off her exosuit for the first time. Worse, she was pretty sure they knew that, and they were ignoring her on purpose.
Fine. If they wanted to act like jerks, let them. Jenna didn’t care. She would take off her suit by herself and eat her lunch outside, alone. She’d rather bake in the heat than put up with this unfriendly bunch. No rule said she had to socialize on her break.
The exosuits stood in a neat row along the wall, each next to its charging station. Jenna’s spot was at the end. She better park her suit there, not to give Daron an excuse to complain.
She started to lift her foot—
Nothing. Her boot wouldn’t budge.
She tried again, straining harder.
Ouch. Her knee popped but didn’t bend, the boot as good as nailed to the ground.
Annoyed, she looked down, leaning forward—and was brought up short.
She couldn’t bend either. She couldn’t move at all, her exosuit like a rigid cage around her limbs, torso, and the back of her neck. Her muscles were no match for the carbon-fiber frame that encased them.
Embarrassment whipped through her. Did she touch her control panel by accident? Or was it a malfunction of some sort? Wouldn’t the suit diagnostics warn her, though? Nothing was flashing in her display.
The lock icon was on.
The motion override.
Dammit. She should have known.
Daron had threatened to freeze her ass, and now he did—for no reason whatsoever. That’s what he tapped into the touchscreen on his arm when she paused to enjoy the breeze stirred by the fan. He tricked her!
Jenna gave herself a few moments to seethe in silence before she spoke, to make sure her voice was calm. “I can’t move.”
“Did you hear that?” Daron took a swig of his water, then bit into his sandwich. He looked around the table at the others. Not even a glance at Jenna. “She can’t move.”
“It’s a problem,” Skye admitted.
“Definitely is,” Irelyn agreed.
“Most unfortunate.” This from Khalil.
There was a pause as they waited for Uruk, but he was staring at his computer screen. He jumped up when Irelyn’s elbow poked his ribcage. “We’re still good. No delays. I’m keeping track.”
“We’re talking about the newbie, Uruk,” Irelyn said. “She can’t move.”
Uruk blinked, still oblivious. “Why not? What’s wrong?”
“That’s a very good question,” Daron said, and this time he looked straight at Jenna.
Her temper flared. “I can’t move because you froze my ass!” she growled.
Daron chewed on his sandwich, unfazed. “Correct.”
Jenna’s insides boiled.
Then the pieces clicked into place. “Wait. This is my lesson?”
“We have to start with the basics,” her boss admitted.
Jenna gritted her teeth. “You mean, you’re going to keep me standing here like a moron, stuck in this suit, instead of letting me take my break? What if I want to eat lunch?” She hesitated, but she was past holding back. “What if I have to use the damn restroom?”
Daron shrugged, but his expression was somber. “Like I told you this morning, I consider self-control a basic requirement for the job.”
“The part about me not losing my shit if things went wrong, right? I remember.” She might not be able to move her body, but she still had her tongue and her face. She scowled. “I just had no idea you meant it literally!”
Laughter shook the lunch table, with Khalil snorting so hard, he choked on his food and had to spit a mouthful into a napkin while Uruk pounded him on the back.
Daron’s lips twitched.
“Okay, Jenna.” He rose from his seat and walked over, his half full water bottle in hand. “You want me to lift the lock, so you can get out of this suit? It’s easy.”
Jenna narrowed her eyes, suspecting a trap. “Really?”
Daron stopped three feet away from her. “Sure. All you have to do is say the safe word.”
“The safe word?”
There was no safe word. Was there? Jenna glanced at the others and caught a look of confusion on Khalil’s face, but Skye kicked him under the table before he could speak.
“Two words,” Daron continued. “You already know them. You’re probably thinking them right now—”
Inside her frozen exosuit, Jenna shivered in fury. “Screw you. I’m not going to quit! So leave me alone. I’m fine.”
She had to pee, that was true. But she could hold it. When they got busy at Lazy Dog’s, especially when one of the other servers quit without notice or didn’t show, she had to hold it for half a night and run around the whole time.
This was nothing. It wasn’t so bad at all. She wasn’t baking in the sun. The breeze from the fan wasn’t too cold either. She could handle it.
Daron lifted his bottle to his lips and gulped down the rest of the water. “Come on, Jenna. There are so many better, safer jobs. You could work in a nice office and drink all the water you want, gallons of it, cold and refreshing. And the restroom would be right there, you know?”
Jenna pursed her lips. She wished her boss would shut up about the water. The very thought made her bladder fuller. She couldn’t turn her head away—the carbon-fiber spine hooked to her hard hat prevented the movement—but she could glare just fine, and did.
“Suit yourself. I’ve got to hit the john.” And Daron tossed his empty bottle into a recycling bin and strolled out the back door.
Thirty-two minutes later, according to the clock on Jenna’s display, a faint buzzing tickled her ears. She strained her neck toward the open gate of the hangar but her suit was still frozen, and she could only turn her head an inch. Not enough to look outside.
No one at the lunch table reacted, their attention on Uruk as he explained a holo-blueprint of a house that he called up from his computer, with occasional questions and discussion from the others. The food containers were long gone, the lunch break transformed into a work meeting.
“Guys,” Jenna said. “Do you hear this?”
Heads turned as they all looked at her, instantly alert.
“Hear what?” Skye frowned.
“A buzzing,” Jenna said. Her high-tech hard hat was probably enhancing the sound. She was the only one wearing one at the moment. “Very faint.”
The sound grew louder, like a swarm of mosquitoes heading their way, getting closer.
Daron got to his feet and walked over. “I hear it. The drone must be early.” He turned to Jenna. “How are you doing?”
“I’m not a fan of your teaching methods,” she said drily.
Daron lifted an eyebrow. “I can live with that. Now don’t lean back or you’re going to fall. Take a step forward.” He lifted his arm and tapped on his touchscreen. “And go.”
The tension went out of her exosuit, her center of gravity all wrong for a moment, and Jenna half-stepped, half-fell forward before catching her balance.
She took a few more steps in place, twisted her torso from side to side, lifted her arms and turned her head. It felt good to move again. Somehow, the suit fit her body better than before, like a new pair of sneakers after she broke them in.
Not that she was going to share it with her boss. She was still mad at him.
“You owe me a lunch break,” she said.
Daron’s blue eyes flashed. “Can I open a tab? It might be easier. We’re just getting started. We can settle my bill when we’re all done.”
Jenna blinked in surprise, the reference to her job at Lazy Dog’s sparking an odd flicker of pleasure. So her boss had taken the time to read her application and learn her job history after all. She didn’t think he had.
Not that it excused freezing her suit, Jenna reminded herself.
Life had knocked her through a whole series of hard, thankless jobs after Paps had died, and there was always some sort of hazing, some sort of test for the newcomers. It was such a shitty thing to do, a cruel and pointless power trip, nothing more. Even at Lazy Dog’s—by far her favorite place to work—she found the pockets of her apron filled with ketchup on her first night.
For once, she would like her co-workers to trust her and cut her some slack, instead of her having to prove herself from day one. She wanted to do a good job; she wanted to do right by the team. She just needed time to find her legs under her.
Hell, nobody was born a Mech. They all had to learn and grow into it. Even Daron.
Outside the hangar, red dust was blowing, the buzzing now loud and mechanical, a low whirring undercut by a rhythmic hiss of rushing air. An engine and several rotating blades.
How big was the drone? Jenna wondered. She badly needed to use the restroom, but her curiosity won out and she lingered.
Skye and Khalil had hurried past her and Daron and out the gate to check on the delivery.
Now Skye looked back over her shoulder. “Um… boss? We have a visitor.”
Daron’s face darkened, and he cursed fiercely and stalked outside.
It wasn’t a drone.
A sleek, executive hovercar touched down on a patch of packed dirt and powered down with a grunt. As soon as the blades stopped and the red dust settled, a woman in a shimmering gray pant suit emerged, her blue-black high heels and leather bag perfectly matching her blue-black, shoulder-length hair, or maybe vice versa. She squinted against the hot, bright sun and shaded her eyes with her hand, her mouth twisting with disapproval.
Jenna had never seen someone more out of place.
Daron glared at the stranger. “What do you want?”
Jenna saw his bad mood earlier. But this was different—ice cold and laced with resentment. He and the exec clearly knew each other and hated each other’s guts.
The woman smiled, but her voice dripped with venom. “Really, Daron. Would it kill you to be polite? A simple professional courtesy. Not to mention I’m much higher in the food chain.”
Daron spoke through clenched teeth. “We’re busy.”
A smirk. “I can see that.”
Irelyn walked up to Daron and handed him a hard hat. The hat was smeared with the printing clay, and Jenna could smell the stench from where she stood.
Daron nodded thanks to Irelyn, his eyes brightening for a moment, then offered the filthy head gear to the visitor. “If you really want to see what we do here, by all means, come along. But you’ll need a hard hat. A safety rule.”
The woman glanced at the hat and shrunk back in disgust. “That won’t be necessary. Not my department.” She flashed Daron a smile sharp enough to cut. “I’m here to talk to your new team member.”
“Wait a second—”
Daron tried to block her way, but the exec slipped past him, one hand clutching the bag, her high heels clicking as she took quick, cautious steps on the gravel. She had impressive balance, Jenna had to give her that. Jenna would’ve broken her ankle already. She avoided any shoes she couldn’t comfortably run in, and high heels topped the list.
The woman headed straight for Jenna, as though guided by a targeting system. She extended her hand for a handshake, then registered Jenna’s exosuit and robo-gloves, and opted for an ultra-friendly smile instead. “You must be Joanna.”
“Wonderful to meet you.”
The exec rattled out her own name and title, but she spoke so fast that Jenna only caught two words. Retention strategies.
Her full bladder pinged, and she winced. Seriously? Retention as in holding it in? She could do without another reminder.
The woman was still talking, so Jenna made an effort to focus.
“First, on behalf of myself and everyone in the Employee Success Division, I want to say: welcome aboard! We are thrilled to have someone with your training and experience join the team, and we know you will be a terrific asset and make fantastic contributions to our company’s production goals and our mission to provide innovative, sustainable, and affordable housing options to all members of our community.”
The speech would sound less memorized if the woman paused to take a breath instead of rushing through the script at a breakneck speed.
“Thanks.” Jenna moved from foot to foot, impatient to wrap it up. She should have shed her suit and snuck out to the port-a-john when she’d had a chance.
The woman’s eyes narrowed, and a shrewd, hungry look came into her face. “What’s wrong, Joanna?”
Jenna stopped moving. “What do you mean?”
“Something is bothering you. Did anything happen?” The woman moved a step closer and lowered her voice, as if the sound system in Jenna’s hard hat didn’t already pick up every rustle of her expensive pantsuit, the fabric glinting in the sun like the scales of a snake. “You can trust me. It’s not about pointing fingers, anyway. It’s about improving the culture for all future employees. A positive experience on the first day is critical to employee success.” The woman’s eyes flicked to Daron, then back to Jenna, her expression predatory, a fox ready to pounce. “So if anyone treated you poorly today, I need to know, and I will personally make sure that they will never do it again.”
Heat rushed through Jenna, her tongue itching to speak.
Someone did treat her poorly. In fact, motion-locking her suit was probably classified as harassment. She could get Daron fired. A small part of her wanted to.
Except… Jenna had never ratted on anyone in her life—and that’s what it was, no matter how Retention Strategies spun it. She would settle the score herself later.
Besides, the woman didn’t give a crap about Jenna. She had her own agenda—to strike at Daron and use Jenna as a hammer.
“Thanks, but so far, so good,” Jenna said brightly. “I’m just still getting used to all this cool gear, you know?” She gestured at her suit and hard hat.
“Wonderful. I’m happy to hear that.” The woman’s voice was chilly. “Well, if you ever have any issues or concerns, any at all, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here for you, Joanna.”
Jenna would rather dig a ditch with her bare hands. “Yep. Got it.”
The real delivery drone, when it arrived a moment later, was a quadcopter the size of a briefcase, with a propeller in each corner and virtually soundless. It descended to Uruk’s eye level, confirmed his identity with a retinal scan, then deposited a small package at his feet and took off again, vanishing into the bright sky.
Was it the right part? Could they fix the print head and finish the house as planned?
All the eyes were on Uruk, including Jenna’s, as he tore open the package and inspected the contents.
When he gave a thumbs up, the response was a collective sigh of relief. Skye, Khalil, and Irelyn exchanged high fives.
Jenna felt a sting of disappointment at being left out, but Daron was already marching toward them.
He ignored the exec and addressed Jenna, his tone neutral. “Do you need more time?”
Jenna shook her head. “Nope. All done.” What she needed was the restroom.
Her boss gave a slight nod before turning to the visitor. “Okay. Then let me show you out.”
The woman huffed with irritation, her smile gone. “You know, I’ve had it with your attitude. I still need to explain to our vice-president for Employee Relations what the hell happened here last week. And how am I supposed to do that?”
Jenna drifted a few steps away and stopped, the urge to eavesdrop stronger than the need to empty her bladder.
“It’s all in my report,” Daron said.
The woman glared. “Your report was one sentence long.”
“He quit. What else do you want me to say?”
“Quit after just three days on your team. And that doesn’t bother you? No thoughts on how to prevent an embarrassing fiasco like that in the future?”
Daron’s face darkened. “You want my thoughts? Okay. Here’s one. Scrap the idiotic hiring algorithms and let me pick my own crew. Based on actual skills, not goddamn keywords.”
The woman blinked in shock. “You? That’s never going to happen.”
“Then stop wasting my time. I have a house to print and a new Mech to train.”
Jenna’s ears pricked. A new Mech. He meant her.
“Fine. Suit yourself.” The woman gave a malicious smirk, any pretense of sophistication gone. “But just so you know, I’m assigning you an online training course in Workday. Leading With Compassion To Maximize Team Productivity. I think you will really benefit from it. You have a week before it’s overdue, and you know how many notifications that will generate.” And she tossed her black hair and stalked away.
Daron watched her go, his jaw clenched and teeth grinding like he was chewing on rocks.
Jenna turned, startled, her carbon-fiber elbow narrowly missing Skye’s ribcage. “Yeah?”
“I bet you need to pee. Come on.” Skye pointed toward the hangar. “I’ll help you out of the suit.”
Jenna’s pride flared, and she was tempted to refuse the offer, to deny she had to pee at all. But that would be stupid. Her bladder throbbed, on the verge of bursting. Not something she wanted to experience on her first day—or ever.
“That would be great. Thanks.”
Skye was still there, waiting to help her back into the suit, when Jenna got out of the port-a-john, her bladder blissfully empty.
“Why did he quit? The new guy before me, I mean?” Jenna asked.
Skye frowned. “That guy. Ugh. Never should’ve been hired. He thought robots would do all the hard work for him, and he’d just sit on his ass and press buttons. And when Daron disabused him of that notion, he got all pissy, ignoring directions, and almost walked into the print head. Irelyn had to smash through a wall to pull him out of the way. And then he quit.”
“And good riddance,” Jenna said with feeling.
Skye chuckled. “Damn right.” Then her expression hardened. “He really screwed us, though. Just up and left in the middle of a shift. Uruk had to suit up to help us take apart the printer, and that’s not his job. We’re still behind schedule. Although we’ll catch up. We always do.” Skye shook her head. “Daron was pissed. He’d just trained the guy for two whole days, and the asshole took off on the third.”
The pieces snapped together in Jenna’s mind.
So that’s why Daron was so harsh and skeptical when she showed up today; why he taunted her about quitting; why he froze her suit to test her resolve. She was another newbie the company hired without his input, although if anything went wrong, if she got injured or caused damage, it would be on Daron’s head.
It didn’t excuse him, and it was still unfair to Jenna, and she had no intention of letting it go.
But now she understood his reasons.
The rest of the work day passed quickly.
When the printing resumed, Daron told Jenna, less gruffly this time, to watch and learn but stay out of their way. With the new heatbreak in place, and a clean nozzle spitting out a perfect roll of clay, the small crew were rushing to make up for the lost hour, and Daron didn’t have time to keep an eye on her. They would start the proper training the next morning.
But Jenna hated being idle while the others were so busy, and she kept asking for a job until her boss relented and gave her one: scrubbing the clogged extrusion nozzle.
At first, Jenna was indignant. A cleaning job? Really? Was Daron messing with her again?
But he wasn’t. The job was time sensitive, because a fully hardened clay was almost impossible to remove; and it required precision and a light touch, which meant no suit and only latex gloves. With everyone else occupied, Jenna was the only one who could do it. For all the high-tech advances in 3D printing, the cleaning tasks still fell to humans. Jenna mused about the irony of it as she pried bits of clay from the nozzle in the lengthening shadow of the printer frame.
Dusk was falling by the time Daron called it a wrap, a good few hours past the time their shift was supposed to end, although no one complained.
The house was finished—and that’s what mattered. All except for the precast roof, which a specialty crane would drop, section by section, into the rebar cages on top of the walls when all five houses were done.
It had been a productive day, and that made up for Jenna’s aching muscles.
But she didn’t forget about Daron freezing her suit. And to think of it, none of her crew mates had stood up for her or tried to intervene either. Which meant Jenna had a score to settle with all of them—and she’d love to settle it right now, tonight, and start fresh tomorrow.
When Uruk powered down the printer, Jenna expected a hasty exodus. Surely, they all wanted to get home and kick back after a hard day. Or just escape the earthy stench of the printing clay that somehow grew more potent after sundown.
But the group lingered, Skye, Irelyn, and Khalil all throwing Daron pointed looks while he stared back grimly, lips tightly shut.
Skye wasn’t having it. “Come on, boss. You should say something.” And just to make her meaning crystal clear, her eyes flicked to Jenna.
Daron frowned, but he was outnumbered. He cleared his throat and turned to Jenna. “Umm. You did well today. You kept your cool.”
Jenna grinned, a spark of an idea sending a shiver down her spine.
You kept your cool.
That was it. She knew what to do.
“Thanks. I appreciate it. So… how about a round of cold beer? My treat.”
A look of surprise crossed Daron’s face, and his blue eyes drilled into her like lasers.
Jenna held his gaze and kept smiling, although her nerves were in knots.
She had one shot at this. If she pushed it, her new boss might get suspicious. She sensed the others were letting him decide.
Come on, Daron. Say yes. Who doesn’t want a cold beer after a long, hot day?
Daron’s lips twitched. “Okay. Why not?”
Jenna beamed. “Great. I know a perfect place.”
As far as the names of pubs went, Lazy Dog’s had to be least accurate in the city, since most of its regulars were construction and hospital workers who busted their asses all day like nobody’s business.
The cavernous main room was all dark wood and green synthetic leather, with dim, warm lights and old, framed photos of canines of all shapes and sizes on the walls. The restaurant took up one half of the room, while the bar with standing counters took up the other.
The place was packed when Jenna and her guests arrived—every table, every booth, every stool at the long bar taken.
But that was no surprise. Lazy Dog’s was always busy on the week days. In fact, Jenna counted on it.
“Wow,” Skye said, looking around. “This place is popular.”
“Don’t worry,” Jenna said.
Several servers deftly wove their paths through the crowd, carrying trays with hot food or cold drinks. Jenna waved to one—Moira, whom she’d trained as her replacement—and the girl hurried over, grinning.
“Jenna! Are you back? Bob will be so happy. We’re swamped, as always.”
“No. Sorry.” Jenna smiled. “I need a favor, though. I promised my friends cold beer, and I was hoping to use the party room.”
Moira sighed. “Sure thing. Go right ahead. I’ll get your order ready.”
Jenna almost laughed. She might actually be able to pull off her crazy idea. “Thanks. I’ll come say hello to Bob in a bit.”
“A party room?” Daron commented. “Sounds fancy.”
Jenna shrugged. “I used to work here. It’s a perk.” Then she turned to the group. “Come on. Follow me. We’re going this way.”
The private party room was in the back, a smaller, windowless cavern with large wall screens and green synthetic leather couches surrounding a low table in the middle. The air was blissfully cool, the AC humming in the background. Jenna had picked a slightly longer route to avoid the restrooms.
“Come on in.” She held the door open with a smile, letting her guests enter first. One by one, Khalil, Uruk, Skye, and Irelyn walked in and stretched on the couches with a chorus of grateful sighs.
Only Daron paused in the doorway, frowning. “I appreciate the gesture, but we’re thirsty enough to drain a lake, and I won’t let you blow your first paycheck. We’ll split the bill six ways.”
Laughter tickled Jenna’s throat, but she managed to keep her voice steady. “Don’t worry. I get a great discount.”
The moment stretched, with Daron still standing in the door, one leg in the room, the other out, and it took all Jenna’s willpower not to nudge him inside.
But at last, he walked in.
Jenna’s spine tingled. “Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be right back with the beer.”
And she closed the door, savoring the satisfying click, and hurried to find her former boss.
Minutes later, Jenna had Bob’s office all to herself. She spun around in the chair, propped her feet on the desk, and faced the intercom screen. This was going to be fun.
She hit the remote, and the party room filled the screen.
“Hi, there,” Jenna said.
Her guests could see her on their screen and hear her on the speakers, just as she could see and hear them. A generous case of beer sweated on ice on the table, together with a platter of food, all delivered through a rotating tray built into the wall. Khalil, Irelyn, Skye, and Uruk each held an open bottle already.
Jenna grinned. “I hope you enjoy the beer. Cheers!”
“Cheers!” Her crew mates raised their beers to her in response.
Bob, the owner of Lazy Dog’s, used to be a coast-to-coast trucker before automatic transport fleets made his job obsolete. Now, maybe to catch up for all these dull years alone behind the wheel, he loved nothing more than to be let in on a mischief, and was perfectly willing to lend his property, whether a room or a volume of beer, to share in the laugh.
Daron walked up to the screen, his eyes on Jenna.
To her disappointment, his hands were empty. Too bad. She was hoping he’d finish a beer or two before he realized her plan.
“The door is locked,” he said casually.
“Hmm.” Jenna popped her own beer bottle open and took a sip. The cool, crisp taste was exquisite, with just a tinge of bitterness that lingered on her tongue. Perfect. “If the door is locked, then… it’s a problem.”
Daron’s eyes flashed as the realization hit him. “You locked it, didn’t you?”
Four heads swung in Jenna’s direction, various degrees of shock on their faces.
Jenna grinned. “I did.”
For the first time since she met him, Daron smiled, one corner of his lips riding up higher than the other, as if he was out of practice, his facial muscles unused to forming that particular configuration.
An understanding passed between them, and Jenna smiled back. Something told her they would get along just fine from now on.
“So how do we unlock the door, Jenna?” Daron asked.
“Oh. All you have to do is say the safe word. I’m sorry for being an ass. Otherwise, I’d go easy on the beer. Sorry. I know it’s delicious. But hydraulic pressure and all that.”
Daron actually chuckled. “I guess we deserve it.”
“I almost forgot.” Jenna picked up the remote again. “White winter or a babbling stream? Let’s go with a babbling stream.” A looped nature video filled the other screens in the party room. “I just love the sound of running water, don’t you?”
There was a collective groan.
“Well, I’ll check on you all in a bit.” And Jenna turned off the intercom.
The saying was true. Revenge was best served cold. Chilled-beer-in-a-sweating-bottle-with-the-AC-turned-way-up cold.
But with the score settled and the payback delivered, she decided she liked her new job and her new team. Sure, she had a lot to learn, and the job would kick her ass for the first few weeks, until she got the hang of it. But that was fine.
She couldn’t wait to put on the exosuit and help print another house tomorrow.
Vera Brook is a neuroscientist turned science fiction and fantasy writer, with three indie-published novels and a handful of short stories out in the world. She tweets about writing at @VeraBrook1.