by Markus Wessel
Rauber drops the skillstick into my palm with a smile that reminds me of the dogpacks out in the wastes. I’m not there anymore, I’ve made it into the city. But there are predators here, too. One way to deal with them is to evade, to gray out. So I nod, look down, and turn towards the backroom behind the counter of Rauber’s Delicatessen and Catering to change into my outfit for today’s temp job.
He grabs my upper arm and stops me. “I want to see you put it in,” he says. He smells of mustard and his hand is moist and warm, sticky on my skin. “Just to check that everything fits nicely.” He moves closer and reaches for the cluster of sockets behind my left ear. “Here, let me hold your hair —”
“I got it.” I force a smile and step back. “Thanks, but I got it.” The skillstick is clunky and old, as long as my thumb. Its dull, black plastic casing is marred by years of use and abuse. The cap is dented and I have to twist hard to unscrew it. Something brown and flaky cakes the thread around the plug. I wipe it off, fit it into my socket, and feel the click as it connects.
The skillshare program boots up immediately and starts to import the profile set for today’s temp job: dishwasher maintenance, water purification protocols, basic food handling, and hygiene. Then it breaks off.
The flesh around my socket tingles and I pull the skillstick out. It hurts. “It’s broken.”
“No, no, no.” Rauber frowns and scratches the side of his nose with a yellow fingernail. “I just bought them, satisfaction guaranteed.” He pronounces it guaaa-raaan-teeed. “Surplus gear from the forces, that stuff never breaks. Why don’t you blow on it a bit? Maybe use some spit.”
I flush and want to say something, but then I remember the few crumpled crednotes in my pocket — maybe enough for a night at the temp-house, maybe not — and don’t. I give the skillstick a quick shake, wipe its plug on my t-shirt, try again, and hope. Bingo. Twenty seconds later my head contains everything a wastenik needs to handle shitwork with a margin too slim for automation support.
Rauber watches me and nods. “Good. Got everything you need, then.” He flicks his fingers towards the backroom. “Then get ready, and quick. You’re on the clock now, so you better be in the pit in two.” He sniffs. “I’ll see you later.”
I feel his eyes on me until I pull the backroom door shut.
It’s hot and steamy in the pit, my feet hurt, and working the dishwasher makes my hands cramp, but the import skillset does its job. The machine’s model is included, so I know where to pull, what to press, and how to move to get the dishes cleaned and disinfected as soon as they arrive. There are stacks of them, though, because Rauber seems to be handling an order for a primo-tier family event, a wedding or somesuch. Old city money, and lots of it. I see him flit around the kitchen with crescent-shaped sweat stains below his armpits. He makes eye contact once, but keeps walking, doesn’t say a word. Good thing, too, because he gives me the creeps. He wouldn’t be the first boss to get pushy with temps, especially ones from outside the city.
The dishwasher hums and breaks open like a giant metal clamshell. A steam cloud envelops me, the smell of detergent heavy in the air. A red light on the side of the machine starts to blink as I unload it. The rinse aid is low. I pull the empty rack out, push a full one in, and switch it on. Ninety seconds time for a refill.
I step aside and pull a milky-white five-liter plastic canister out from below a prep table. Blue liquid sloshes around in it. As I unscrew the cap, I remember that if I mixed enough of it with gasoline and some other ingredients from the pantry, it would make a nasty, slow-burning fire-charge, perfect to build an ambush for a supply train or destroy an auto-turret, especially when placed near the side-panel where the plating above the targeting system is slightly thinner.
I carefully set the canister down next to the dishwasher and try to swallow. My mouth is completely dry. Adrenaline zaps my nerves like an electric shock and my legs shake so hard I have to grab the dishwasher’s handle to steady myself. Where the hell did that come from? I never knew anything about making explosives before, but suddenly everything is there, the instructions, the pictures, the use-cases — clear as if I had always known it.
But there is more. I remember how easy it all is. How easy killing is. How I could coat the floor with liquid detergent, switch the pit light off, and wait for my target to come looking. When they fall, it would only take a single, well-placed stab with a kitchen knife or a solid kick to the neck…
I rip the skillstick from my socket and all I know about efficient murder is gone.
My pulse races. Sweat coats my chest under my temp gear. I take a sip from my water cup, and I shake so much I have to use two hands to steady it. The dishwasher beeps, but I am unable to move. I count my breaths and try to calm myself.
I put the stick down on the side of the polished steel sink next to me. It lies there like a dead bug. I almost expect it to unfold thin, wiry legs and scuttle off, but, of course, it doesn’t. There must be something else on there, something far outside the expected skillset. Whoever sold Rauber the thing must have been less than reliable about sterilizing it first. What did he say, surplus forces gear? Maybe some of their skills stayed on. I remember an elder, out in the wastes, talk about the forces, and how they would recruit for long-range patrols among the kids. Weeks on end, way out in the wasteland. They’d skill them up with sticks, too, and make them give them back afterwards. Makes sense, I guess. Would be much too dangerous having wasteniks run around with knowledge like that, right?
“What the fuck are you doing?” Rauber is suddenly behind me. His face is red and glistens and he pushes his finger into my chest. “Do I pay you to stand around?” The dishwasher beeps again.
“No, I —”
“You’re damn right I don’t,” he shouts, specks of spit flying from his mouth. “I got a whole primo fam waiting and they expect service!” He sees my skillstik on the sink. “Why did you take the stick out?”
“It didn’t work properly,” I say. It sounds lame even to my ears, but I don’t want to tell him the other stuff.
Rauber shakes his head and bites his lower lip. “No, no, no, I see what this is.” He runs his hands through his hair, slicking it back with sweat. “You think you can just float the day and be off tomorrow, right? It’s always the same with you temps. You come here with nothing, nothing at all, and I give you a day and you think, that Rauber, he’s a mark. Let’s just take it easy, get the creds and fly.”
“No, it’s not that at all.” I pick the skillstick up. “Let me just —”
“Here is what is going to happen. You get, what, fifty creds for the day, open end, and so on? I’ll redact a tenner for insubordination, you hear me?” I open my mouth to speak but he holds up a finger to silence me. “You better read your agency’s conditions before you try something like that next time. It’s all in there.” He turns. “Get the fuck back to work.”
I watch him storm out, the skillstick heavy in my hand. Forty creds only. Something hard balls itself in my stomach and I do a quick calculation in my head. I’ll be broke by the day after tomorrow. Broke and hungry. My eyes start to burn as I fumble the stick back into my socket with shaking fingers.
The dishwasher beeps.
At three o’clock in the morning my shift is finally over. I wring the last cleaning cloth out in the sink and throw it into the recycling bucket below it. Then I wipe down the floor with a dried-out squeegee. The way the gray water slushes into the drain, full of chunks and bits and pieces, reminds me of what well-placed water-charges can do to crews inside surveillance boats. As soon as the memory bubbles up, I push it down with all the mental force I can muster. It has been like this since I put the stick back in. How to abseil from gunships on night raids, mixture specifics for thermite production, how to carve punji sticks, and where to hide them for maximum damage. Terrifying.
I walk through the empty kitchen to the backroom, to get out of the temp gear and back into my street clothes, when I spot Rauber. He stands behind the counter, blocking the way to the door with his arm.
“So?” he asks, leaning in. “Are you finished?”
I nod. “Wiped down and clean. Will that be all for today?”
“That’s good, that’s good.” He leans in further and smiles, his eyes watery and unfocused. There is something sharp and minty in his breath. “How do you like it here?”
“It has been a pleasure. Could you please let me through?” I nod towards his arm.
He doesn’t move it. “A pleasure.” He draws the word out. “Sure. And for me, too. For me, too. It’s just too bad that I have to deduct you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say. “Can you please lift your arm?”
“But there is of course the possibility for some extra work,” he countinues, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Something more personal. Won’t take you long at all, I’m sure.” He sees my face. “Listen, I’m sorry about earlier. That wasn’t me at all, I promise. In fact, I’m a really nice guy. And it’s not as if you don’t need the money.” He smiles with wet lips.
“Just give me my creds and let me through!” My stomach flares up with anger that flames out through my body in split-seconds. Twelve hours and thirty-five minutes on my feet, in heat and steam and noise. I’ve had worse temp jobs — sorting microcontroller breakage for leftover metal, burning bio-garbage for a week last month, unclogging sewers — but only few. I just want my creds and get out. Now.
I push Rauber’s arm up and duck beneath it.
He grabs my neck with the other hand.
“Hey, where do you think you are going? Did I tell you to leave?” He shoves me against the backroom door and presses himself against me. His face is hard and waxy, a hand-width from mine. He grabs my crotch. “Now you’re going to do what I —”
I headbutt him, hard. In a single moment it’s all there: the grip to control his wrist, the way to turn my body into the move, how to follow up by slamming Rauber’s head onto the counter, and everything that comes after. When I finally drag his limp body into the backroom, I don’t need any of my new skills to know that he is dead.
Then I breathe. And think.
Fixing the place is easy. The right chemicals in the right combinations in the right spots. I know it all. Or someone once did, at least, and saved it on my stick. Ten minutes later — enough time to bump the register — Rauber’s place is a pillar of flames. I can still see its glow in the night sky above the tin huts by the time I’m halfway towards the gates. I’ll go underground for a while, back to my people outside the city. With my skillstick, of course. There is more than enough knowledge on there to survive. I might even make some money. Some skills are always in demand.
Markus Wessel writes genre fantasies that tend to go bang, beep, or splat. He is awfully fond of coffee, enthusiastic, and easily distractable, though he denies that there is a connection. He really loves to write — and if he ever gets story openings down the way Lansdale does, he’ll be a happy man.
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