Sorry it's been a while. Here's another short story-- this one wasn't in the Introduction Of Sorts collection, but it was written around that time, so it's also one of my older works.
I did present this during a creative writing class I took recently, and it was well received both by my professor and my classmates. A few of them thought that it was an excerpt from the beginning of a novel or novella length story, rather than a stand-alone short. I think that's a good thing-- it suggests that the events of the tale imply a fuller world and narrative. However, it is just this one short story.
At least, for now.
Anyways, I hope you like it.
I just now realized how useless a thing that is to say. It's not as if I hope you are bored or insulted. Logically, it goes without saying that I want you to enjoy my story. Then again, I sincerely do hope that my little story will bring you some measure of happiness, so I will say it, regardless of the redundancy of it. Logic has little to do with the matter.
By William Bowles
A frigid wind swept across the snow-choked plains, kicking up a white haze against the deep, crimson sky. The temperature dropped by the hour, and the night grew darker in equal measure, but within the concrete walls of the factory, the evening crew persevered.
“These machines sure require a lot of attention, don’t they?” Simon asked, pulling his fleece hat down over his ears. Though the steel and concrete of the factory walls kept the howling winds at bay, winter's chill always managed to sneak in.
“If it could fix itself they wouldn't have to call us out here, now would they?” Carl retorted.
He scraped off a layer of frost that had built up on the outside of the machine, then began to unscrew a plate to check the wiring within.
“How much do you think a machine like this costs?” Simon asked.
Carl ignored the question. “Hand me the pliers.”
Simon held the tool just out of reach.
“Not until you answer my question,” he teased.
“Quit it, Simon. We’re on the job. Don’t waste my time.”
“How much did this thing cost?” Simon insisted.
Carl sighed. “Ten billion,” he guessed.
Simon whistled. “Wow. That’s a lot of money,” he said, though he had imagined a greater sum. “Really? Ten billion?”
“I don’t know. I'm just guessing,” Carl said, and snatched the pliers from Simon's unresisting hand. “Maybe twenty or thirty. Hell, it could be one billion or a hundred billion for all I know. I just know how much I get paid for repairing it.”
“And how much we get docked if we don’t!” Simon chimed in.
“Yeah. So stop distracting me and let’s make sure this thing is good to go.”
For a little while, they didn’t speak as they checked wire connections, cleaned out dirt and ice, and replaced components that were damaged or worn. As Carl climbed down into the control chamber, he wished that his coworker would just stay quiet, though past experience told him that that was unlikely.
“What if it overheats again?” Simon asked. “What’d happen?”
Carl sighed. It seemed to him that Simon lacked the ability to keep his mouth closed for more than fifteen consecutive seconds. He counted.
“We were lucky they brought it in soon enough this time. If it had been farther out, they might not have been able to recover it at all.”
“But what if it does?” Simon asked. “I mean, overheat again.”
A part of Carl wanted to tell his novice coworker to stop asking unnecessary questions, but realized that it was a relevant inquiry. Simon was worried about possible consequences, which was understandable.
“We’ll probably get fired for doing a half-assed job.”
“Oh. Is that all?” he was a bit relieved, having imagined medieval torture.
“Well, actually,” Carl hesitated as he opened the main hatch, “actually, you’d only get a pay cut. I’d get fired.”
“’Cause I’m just a technician and you’re a chief engineer, right? So you’re the one responsible if something goes wrong, right?”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
Simon nodded. “Okay, but what about the machine?”
“Oh, it’d be ruined. One more over-heat and this baby’s done for.” Carl patted the steel hull affectionately. “Especially if it breaks down way out there. Not like last time, when it was so nearby.”
With the hatch open, Carl climbed down the latter into the machine's interior
“Do these things overheat easily?” Through a nearby window, Simon watched the sky as it faded slowly from a deep blue to the cold black of obsidian.
“Only if the main cooling line is faulty.” Carl called out from inside the machine. He removed the damaged line as he spoke, which had become worn out over the past several months. Simon saw the old cooling line tossed out of the hatch and he stepped to the edge of his elevated platform, watching the length of blue-coated tubing tumble down to the ground below. Simon gulped. He had never been fond of heights.
“If there’s even a small flaw in the coating,” Carl called out, his voice accompanied by the mechanical clatter of tool-work, “it will eventually wear out, and that’d be the end of it.”
Simon looked skeptical and opened his mouth, but Carl cut him off as if he could see him.
“Yes, even in this weather. The temperature outside doesn’t do so much to the mechanics inside. Not as much as you’d think. It’s all the friction, burning fuel, and electronics, you see. All that generates a lot of heat.”
Carl then appeared head-first as he climbed up out of the hatch, closing it behind him.
Again, Simon pondered. He contemplated his next question more carefully. For a minute, neither of them said a word. Carl was beginning to hope Simon had finally shut up once and for all, though his hopes were in vain.
“Um… Carl?” Simon asked reluctantly.
“What is it, Simon?”
Almost afraid of the answer, he asked “How many people… will it kill?”
Carl shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. A thousand, perhaps,” he answered casually. “Maybe more. Hand me the welder.”
When he was not given the tool, he looked over at Simon who stood staring back at him; pale as snow.
“A… A thousand…?” he asked weakly.
“Yeah. Give or take,” Carl said. “Maybe ten thousand. If it does its job.”
“Why? Because of all the rebels in Jadensburg, you dolt. We send this baby in and shoot up a few city blocks… it’ll teach them a lesson.”
“But it isn’t just killing rebels, is it? It’s going to kill innocent people too, isn’t it?”
“Well, there's bound to be some collateral. A machine can’t tell the difference. Besides, it doesn’t have to eliminate the rebel militia. All it needs to do is send a message.”
“A message?” Simon retorted in disbelief.
“Yeah. Something along the lines of ‘this is what happens to traitors.’”
“But they’re not all traitors. Most of the people there are innocent, aren’t they? Just… regular people. Probably didn’t do anything bad at all. Don’t you think that’s wrong?”
“Oh, I know it’s wrong. Everything’s wrong,” Carl said wearily as he cleaned some debris out from the crevices of one of the massive Gatling gun barrels “It’s not a matter of who's right, because no one is. But if I walk away, someone else will do the repairs. Besides, I need money, too. I stopped caring a long time ago. It just made things harder.”
“But… why? They’re just innocent people. They didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just regular people like you and me. Why do we have to kill them?”
Carl turned to him, and shot him an accusing look. “You got a complaint, Simon?”
Overhearing the argument, another worker on a platform some yards away called out “Is everything okay over there?”
Engineers and repairmen on other platforms looked at them, too.
Carl looked at Simon. “Well?”
“No, no. I… I’ve got no complaint,” he said submissively. “Everything's okay over here,”
“Nothing to worry about,” Carl replied to the other engineer, who went back to what he had been doing. The others too soon returned their attention to other things.
“Alright then,” Carl said, calming down, “let’s finish up and get outta here.”
Simon nodded sullenly. “Okay.”
“Hey, lighten up, will ya?”
“I know. It’s just… Have you ever thought of--”
“I try not to,” Carl interrupted. He shook his head, trying to forget about what his actions were going to cause.
Simon kept mostly quiet after that. If he had any further questions, he kept them to himself, which Carl appreciated. The silence gave him time to think without distraction. But his mind wasn’t on the job at hand.
The repair crews checked the giant treads for damage, but they were fine. Simon found a crushed and rusted old bicycle that must have been stuck under the treads for a while, but there was nothing of consequence. One of the rocket launchers needed a replacement igniter; cameras seventeen, nine, and twenty-two needed cleaning; and the paint job needed touching up where a Molotov cocktail had burned it.
By around one o'clock in the morning, the repairs were nearly done. Everyone was exhausted, yet they were all grateful it hadn't taken longer. One by one, teams finished their jobs, lowered their lifts, and vacated the facility. As Carl finished the last of the tasks, he turned to Simon.
“So. Ah… Looks like we’re about done here,” he said, hesitantly. “You go on. I’ll close up.”
“You sure?” Simon asked.
Carl shook his head. “Don't worry about it. We're just about done anyway.”
Simon nodded. He flipped the switch to lower his platform. Once he reached the ground, he stepped down and made his way toward the exit.
Carl looked at the hatch and thought; recent words echoing through his mind.
From the toolbox he produced a pair of pliers, and then paused. He gave himself one last chance to reconsider, but eventually decided to go ahead. He opened the hatch and went down into the tiny maintenance chamber within the machine's interior. With the pliers he stripped a bit of the coating from the main cooling line and left.
What is the moral of this story? Some of my classmates interpreted it as an anti-war message. While war is generally an ill thing indeed, that is not the purpose of this tale. After all, there is no war involved; it is an internal conflict. "War" implies two sides fighting against each other. The horrors described by Carl are not war, but massacre. If this story is anti-anything, it's murder, corruption, and apathy. If its about anything, its about bravery, and standing up for what's right, no matter the consequences. Or something like that.
Then again, Maintenance is primarily a form of entertainment. I want it to be enjoyed. If it has any positive impact on the world, then that is a greater thing than I could ever have hoped for. Yet this is not a soap box from which I protest this or that. This is meant to be a fun story, first and foremost. I do hope that my stories can inspire some degree of good in the world, but it's not meant to be a message merely in the guise of entertainment.
One of my classmates said that she imagined Carl joining the rebellion and having a story of his own, in which he fights against the tyrannical government, or something like that.
While I was glad the story was able to imply further events in her imagination, that's not really the point of the story. The nature of the rebellion and the government are merely background, intentionally left vague. In fact, who's to say that the rebels are even the good guys? Sure, somebody in the higher-ups ordered a horrific internal strike at a city believed to support the rebellion, but A) that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone in charge feels the same, and B) it doesn't mean that the rebels are any better. They could be just a violent bunch of anarchists are just lashing out at authority for the sake of it. Conflicts are not always that simple. In fact, they rarely are.
I think one reason why she imagined that sort of scenario is because we Americans love us a good rebellion. Everything from Star Wars to the founding of our own nation is centered on the brave and idealistic rebels fighting against an oppressive force that seems impossibly strong. Something about overcoming impossible odds and the overthrow of unjust authority is just so ingrained in our very being that we can connect to it on a subconscious level.
Or something like that.
I get the idea that this isn't going to be the last of my long-winded ramblings.
Anyways, feel free to share your thoughts, interpretations, feelings, questions, observations, etc.
I hope you enjoyed this story.
P.S. I will post the 10th page of the Hero's Dilemma comic soon. Maybe today or tomorrow.
EDIT: It's up now!