Commonwealth, IX: “You Don’t Belong Here”

Commonwealth, IX: “You Don’t Belong Here” November 15, 2019

Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 3

Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from my novel Commonwealth. The rest of today’s installment is free, but only on my Patreon site. If you want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon as well. You can sign up for as little as $1/month.

It was over an hour before Sen. Stern concluded his speech, answered questions from the press, shook hands with the dignitaries who’d come for the occasion, and made his exit. Rae couldn’t have minded less, but some of her coworkers swore and stewed, frustrated at how much time they had lost for a political event when there was work to do.

Gerald O’Connor was one of them. “We’re behind schedule!” he barked. “Well, further behind anyway. Hop to it!”

There were no urgent maintenance requests, so Rae and her team spent the day on their ongoing major project, the one she had told the senator about: the effort to modernize Big Gertie, the interlocking control unit. As she had said to him, it was a slow, laborious process. Every component they removed — pulling out old relays to replace them with custom-designed circuit boards — required a rigorous set of test cases, showing every possible state the system could be in for a given combination of inputs, proving that no setting could lead to a head-on collision or two trains trying to merge onto the same track.

They worked late trying to catch up, but Rae was used to that. Work in the main cavern was easy, compared to manual labor in brutally hot or half-flooded tunnels.

She had a quick lunch in the canteen to make up for skipping breakfast, but by quitting time, she was ravenously hungry. She was walking to the locker room, looking forward to a shower and a hot dinner, when a thought struck her. Up ahead, she saw Curt Bryan, taking another hallway that led to the men’s locker room.

She quickened her pace to catch up to him. “Hey, Curt.”

“What do you want?”

“I should ask you that. I noticed you staring at me today, and it’s not the first time. Do we have a problem?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re upset at me, but I don’t know why. If it’s something I did, I want to fix it. Can you tell me so we can work it out?”

She had asked as politely as she could, but something in the question touched a nerve. His face contorted in a scowl.

“Don’t act like that with me! Don’t pretend you don’t know! You’ve been this way all along. Thinking you’re better than the rest of us. Acting like you’re in charge. Being a know-it-all. The other day, when you were bossing us around in that junction room—”

“Bossing you around? I fixed the outflow gate, Curt! We would have drowned if I hadn’t!”

“We could have gone back,” he said angrily. “Let someone else deal with it. But you made us stay. You nearly got us killed.”

“That’s not how it happened!”

“And then today,” he went on, growing red-faced. “Of course Stern paid attention to you. Of course you wanted to show off for the cameras. You’re a diversity hire. A man could do this job better. A man should be getting that paycheck, not you. But we do the work while you take the credit. You don’t belong here. Don’t you get it? You don’t belong here.

She was startled by his sudden fury, but held her ground. “I need a paycheck as much as you do. I work as hard as anyone.”

A penny dropped. “It was you! You left that note in my locker, didn’t you?”

He sneered, but said nothing.

“And those bolts,” she said as another memory came back to her. “That wasn’t an accident. You were throwing them at me!”

“And if I was, what are you going to do about it?”

Rae had a sinking feeling in her stomach. But she faced him defiantly.

“I don’t have to do anything. You’re not my boss, so it doesn’t matter what you think. You’re just a bully. Well, you’re not going to intimidate me out of this job.”

“We’ll see.”

He stalked off. Rae watched him until he disappeared around the corner. Only when he was gone did she take a deep breath, realizing that her heart was thumping in her chest.

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