Isolation

By Jared Vaillancourt [creative writing bureau chief]

No one would ever see the name “Tania Becky Tolstoy” in the history books. Not that such things mattered to her, of course.

Tania was what one would call a gifted child. From the time she could hold a ratchet, little Tania would be into everything mechanical, tearing apart her parent’s appliances and fixing them again, or rearranging them into toys they were slow to replace. Other toddlers got stuffed bears or plastic aliens – Tania got tools.

Her life story wasn’t one of excitement and adventure. At age ten she got placed in advanced shop classes. She was accepted into an engineering academy four years later, and before she was old enough to drink Tania was a certified engineer. By age twenty, she was offered her own charge. She took it.

“Good morning, Ms. Tolstoy,” the AI’s voice droned. Tania groaned and rolled over, pulling the cheap wool covers over her sweat-soaked coveralls. “The time is 0630. Plant 3 is experiencing an unknown error.”

“Fantastic,” she groaned. “Get someone to fix it, would ya?”

“I need not remind you, Ms. Tolstoy,” the AI’s droning had long since ceased to be alluring. “You are the only human being on the entire planet.” Tania opened her eyes and sighed at the dim sunlight groggily seeping in through the metal shutters across her window. She sat up, yawned, and stretched.

“Right,” Tania grumbled. “Off to work, then.”

Her routine had become near instinct in the past five years. She’d strip right in her room, walk the twenty feet or so down to the shower wing and clean up in the middle stall. She’d ignore the AI, which she had affectionately named “Simon” but nowadays called “SIM” (mostly out of spite), as it pestered her inefficient use of time walking back and forth through a facility designed to house four hundred people. Why the almost totally automated plant was designed that way, she wasn’t sure. She dressed back in her quarters.

“SIM, any news on my transfer request?” she asked aloud. The disembodied AI gave no reply. “Garbled in the beam again, huh?” she asked. SIM beeped.

“Company records indicate your request has been archived.” SIM replied. Tania rolled her eyes – anything the company archived never got looked upon again. Some days, she thought she’d been “archived”.

“Well, what’s for breakfast?” she asked instead.

SIM’s drones had prepared a nice omelet with real eggs and synthetic hash-browns. She ate staring out of the immense bay window overlooking the facility. Her “charge” was an immense mining facility, consisting of ten separate plants covering over one hundred hectares on this desolate, lifeless world. Tramways and monorails connected the most distant plants, and intricate lift systems helped her get around. Each plant was the exact same, to one degree or another – rows upon rows of immense storage tanks football fields in length, massive drilling bores inching miles into the crust and processor plants that resembled beasts that had failed to be. She had tried to walk a plant her first week on the job – and the blister scars on her feet would never let her forget that.

“Weather’s nice,” she said offhand.

“The atmosphere is still toxic to human life.” SIM reminded her. “No atmospheric anomalies detected.” Tania didn’t respond to that. Off in the distance, a ship was landing to collect the fruits of her facility’s labour. She sighed and finished her plate; every ship out this far was robotic. No one cared to visit the lone person responsible for keeping the plant in working order. She walked over to the window and watched the ship land.

Her reflection caught her eye. Long auburn hair she had long since surrendered any attempt to tame lay in a loose braid down her back, thin lips that had never known makeup were framed by atrophied laugh lines and bright green eyes… at least her eyes looked alive, she thought. They hadn’t paled like her skin.

“I’ll see you in plant 3,” Tania muttered. SIM offered a gracious beep.

The trouble was in the refinery portion of the plant. An hour of digging through the horribly constructed processors revealed a single chip of raw ore lodged between some gears. Tania stared at the chip in her hand as the factory rumbled to life some time later.

“All this trouble for you,” she whispered. She kissed the chip and stuffed it into her coveralls. The trip back from the plant on the tram was spent staring at the little wedge of… from the smell of it, vanadium.

“Plant 3 now operating at peak efficiency.” SIM droned as she stepped off of the tram. Tania tossed the wedge into the pile of vanadium chips she kept at the door, each one from a plant she had to repair. Although the piles of vanadium, titanium and even platinum were quite large, often weeks would go by with nothing for her to do. Routine maintenance was done by SIM’s drones. Her longest “dry spell” had been three whole months. She’d watched the entire library of entertainment vids and broken three of her more personal “toys” in that time.

“How’s the rest of my charge?” she asked. SIM gave no reply. “Great. Well, call me if anything interesting actually happens.” She walked past the galley, giving the stores her customary longing glance. SIM kept her thin by having its drones keep her away from those stores.

Tania decided it was a good week to explore the central hub – again. Down to the core where SIM was housed, and up all fifty levels past her quarters to the observation dome and back again. It took less and less time to do – this time she climbed the whole tower in under two hours. Exhausted, she slowly made her way back down to the crew wing. Her quarters were the only one without a door – she’d long ago sawed it off.

“Another day saved,” Tania whispered. She stared out of her window. The weak sun was high in the sky. “Well, time for lunch,” she mused aloud. A tear fell down her cheek. Why bother, she thought?

Tania had always been a very social person. Her fellow students, coworkers and even bosses considered her to be a good friend. At least, she thought her bosses considered her a friend. Her reward for good behaviour was to be banished to a backwater world at the very edge of nowhere.

“Hey, SIM. What’s for… lunch…” Tania stopped at the entrance to the galley. A figure was sitting at her favourite window seat, munching on what smelled like SIM’s special (and she was stretching the word “special”) chicken wings. Framed by the light, she couldn’t make out who it was when the figure turned to regard her.

“Hello,” Tania said, stunned. Was this a hallucination? The figure coughed and wiped its mouth with a napkin. “Are… are you really here?” she asked. The figure stood and replied with some sign language.

“I am really here,” SIM translated. “What is your name?”

“Oh,” Tania grunted. “I get it. I’m going crazy and you’re patronizing me. Is that it, SIM?” she demanded aloud. The figure waved its hands and took a step towards her.

“No, you know what? Don’t you start,” she warned the figure. “Five years I’ve been here and not one single-” she reached out. Her hand met flesh.

The woman whose shoulder she was grabbing stared at her with warm grey eyes. Tania took a step back; she was in the same shape Tania was in, but with a shaved head and scars whispering across her cheeks. She blinked at Tania and said something else in sign language.

“I thought these factories were automated,” SIM translated. Tania coughed.

“I thought those ships were, too,” she replied. The woman smiled broadly.

“My name is Monica,” SIM interpreted slowly. “Monica Sarah-Joy Beaumont.”

No one would ever find Tania Becky Tolstoy, the lonely gifted engineer, nor Monica Sarah-Joy Beaumont, the mute starship captain, in any semblance of a history book.

But for one day in a world of mechanization on the fringes of eternity, the two got to be people once again.

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