A GEM IN THE ROUGH

This is a story that I wrote as background information for the novel I plan to draft during November. Normally, this kind of writing doesn’t have much of an arc, but it came out pretty nice, and I wanted to share it with you guys. ~2600 words.

She pulled the foil off the boiling flask in her make-shift laboratory. The liquid inside began to bubble—not a good thing for drying such a precious commodity. She replaced the foil over the flask. The metallic layer sparkled from every tiny wrinkle, even in the darkness of the basement of this once great structure. Gem turned down the heat on the burner.

There was something special about this place. It used to be a factory on the riverfront, but she hardly knew what they made. Nothing of the old machinery remained. Since the old days, scrubs scraped up everything they could get their grubby little hands on. The fact that the brick walls were still in place was something of a miracle in its own right. The structure had persisted for over a century.

Gem looked over the distillation train. Keeping the heated flask below a boil meant that steam would rise slowly enough that it was barely visible until it condensed in the long glass tube running to the receiving flask. This was the last step of the purification process, and the yellow condensate seemed to glow at the bottom of the tiny receiving flask. The temperature was set low enough that she shouldn’t have any worry about the source material scorching, and dry distilling something nasty over the head.

She climbed the old staircase to the ground floor, where scrubs toiled around several of her experiments. If LatticeCorp wanted to make their new batteries so expensive, then she would make her own. They worked on battery tech and fluid recovery for the most part, but also made all kinds of gadgets to earn extra coin on the side. For an Earth-based enterprise, she did fairly well, and the scrubs looked up to her. She was doing good work, and making the world a better place. The whole operation hid beneath the radar of the scrapes that lived in the country who they sought to control from a distance.

Some of the scrapes tried to govern Earth’s factories from Mars, or moon bases, or other deep space outposts. They thought they controlled everything. They imposed their stupid rules on people far from their own homes. They didn’t care about the inner city, only their skewed view of ecology.

Joe approached. He was skinny, dirty, and short, even for a scrub.

“Going out collecting this morning?” he asked.

“Leaving right now. Is your cart ready?”

“It is, ma’am.”

“Okay, then let’s get going.”

There was something to be said about using good old fashioned manpower. It didn’t need recharging, at least not in a normal sense. The ancients used it to build the pyramids, and even in a world surrounded by cheap energy, scrubs remained useful for certain things, and they were cheaper than automated robots. The brown hair, skin, and eyes seemed to blend together for most of them, and her own appearance was much the same, except for her lack of filth. Everyone looked the same, as if human scrubs were manufactured by assembly line.

They walked through the old building. The windows were long gone, but they had replaced most of them with plastic sheets. Dust from the upper levels of the three story structure, where the scrubs slept, filtered down into the rest of the building, which would have been condemned in the old days. In fact, it had probably been scheduled for demolition at some point, long before she purchased it. The scrubs who nested here illegally at the time became her employees, and happy to work for food and safety more than coin.

To the scrubs, this was a shared community, all working toward the same cause. To clean up the waste, and use it to produce alternative products for those who couldn’t afford nice vehicles or expensive gadgets, or medicine. Everyone deserved to stay connected, to vote, but the slums on Earth rarely provided the means. Gem sought to change that. To change everything.

Joe grabbed the rusted handle of his cart from near the door. Low clouds loomed over the city skyline, and from here, they appeared near enough to scrape the top of the steel arch that stood down river: a monument of the past, and the perfect viewing lookout over the drab city center.

The cart was basic, something cave people might have used. It had four wheels and a yellow basket with bits of rust poking through here and there. Inside were several plastic buckets.

“Is it light?” Gem asked.

“Yes ma’am. I emptied everything out.”

“Let’s go.”

She led the way to the riverfront, followed by the heavy footsteps of a clumsy scrub and the squeaky wheels of the cart. Even his breathing was loud. It was no wonder the badges found and arrested them so often. They were terrible at hiding. Lucky for her, this one didn’t have to.

A patrol car zipped overhead, and descended slowly onto their path. The front window slid down, and the badge inside propped his arm on the door, leaning out. Gem never broke her stride, though she could tell from the jittering squeaks and short steps behind her that the scrub was worried.

“Good morning, officer,” said Gem. “Making sure that I’m safe this morning?”

The man smiled. Officers were a little darker than most, spending their days baking inside their patrol cars while solar radiation teased the melanin out of their skin. “Checking everything, ma’am. Any worries this morning? Anything to file a complaint about?”

She walked straight toward the door an smiled at him. “Not a worry in the world.”

“Well.” He leaned forward, looking past her. “The scrubs that work for you. They should probably try to clean up a bit. There’s new policies coming down the pipe, and as part of the cleanup campaign for Earth, we’re probably going to have to start citing those who don’t meet the new sanitary living requirements.”

“You must be joking,” she said, even though badges rarely joked about anything. “We’re in the inner city. Country laws don’t apply here, and they’ll never pass.”

“Be prepared, miss. The world is changing, and the big corporations are sponsoring several initiatives to create cleaner, happier lives for the scrubs.”

“They could start by cleaning up the river. Is this from those laundering companies again?”

“I’m sure they’re on board, ma’am. They have the coin to prod the safety people.”

Gem twisted her mouth to the side. “And they’ll probably jack up their rates once it passes.”

“Likely, ma’am, but that’s not my job. I’m just a lowly enforcer.”

“Well, I don’t want to hold you up, officer. I’m sure you have things to do. Thank you for dropping by and checking on us.”

The badge nodded and winked. The window went up, and the vehicle ascended.

“I don’t like them,” said Joe. “He probably thought I was attacking you or something.”

She shook her head and turned toward him. “You and your brothers and sisters aren’t outlaws anymore, Joe. The badges do their best to keep us safe. Give them a break.”

“I don’t feel safe. You heard him, they’re going to start arresting us if our clothes aren’t clean enough. Who knows how much coin they’ll charge for that arrest?”

“It’s no worry. Remember, we’re distilling one of the finest cleaning agents in existence in there. I’ll look after you. All of you. Just as I always have. Let’s go, the sun is on the rise, and it will be hot soon.”

They continued to the water’s edge, where the scrubs had constructed a make-shift pier from drift logs that floated atop a layer of foam trash.

“Don’t worry, Joe. And remind the other’s not to worry. We have someone on the inside this time. Once we go public, they won’t have any choice. They’ll have to clean up this mess before they worry about your coveralls.”

Joe pulled up a line, and filled one of the plastic buckets with water from the dipper. “But if they stop dumping in the river, how will we get the fluid?”

“If they aren’t dumping, then they’ll have to get rid of it by some other means. We know how to use it properly, and that’ll save work trying to extract it from this sludge water. Like I said, don’t worry about it.”

The two of them returned to the building, and three scrubs helped Joe dump the river water into her filtering apparatus. From here, the sediment would be separated, the water concentrated and treated to tease out a couple drams of the fluid. It wasn’t exactly toxic, but it possessed a secret that none of the scrubs were aware of. Nobody was aware of it. This contaminant had powers far beyond the imaginations of the battery scientists who dumped it into the Mississippi. With it, she would be able to free all of them from the influence of those scrapes, at last liberated from the self-righteous.

“Joe. Make sure the clear water goes into the evaporator, and tell me when it’s done. I have some calls to make.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And find out how our stores are on food and water. It hasn’t rained in a while. I might need you to take the truck and get some supplies later.”

“Yes, ma’am. Should I go out like this though. What if the badges change the law today?”

“They won’t change it in one day, Joe. You need to stop being paranoid about them. They aren’t the problem.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She shooed him away and returned to the bowels of the building, where her extraction was nearly finished. She carefully pulled the plastic clip off the receiving flask and pullet it free, then turned off the heating plate.

Carefully, she held the neck of the bottle a few inches in front of her nose, sniffing carefully to detect any kind of burnt aroma. She inched it closer, and waved her hand over the top. The smell was faint and sweet, exactly as needed. She had another twenty milliliters of the special fluid. Not enough to save them all, but that would come in good time. This batch would probably end up being used to make a special cleaning solution for her scrubs. They worked hard for her, for this place, for St. Louis. Even if the law didn’t pass, they deserved clean coveralls.

Despite her lack of compassion for corporate workers, scrapes, or even other scrubs, she had a soft spot when it came to taking care of her own, and she would not have them held hostage by the high prices of the local laundry. Besides, cleaning fluid could be filtered and reused.

She pondered the yellow liquid in the tiny flask for a moment, swirling it carefully. So many uses, and that damned LatticeCorp just dumped it in the Mississippi instead of recycling it. They didn’t care about anyone’s welfare, only their own profit margins, and their image. But she would give them something to care about soon enough. Once the transport arrived from Vega Prime, their shinny Martian city. She’d give them more than they could handle.

She dropped a frosted glass stopper in the top of the bottle, and looked up at the stairwell.

“Duck!” she yelled.

One of the dirty scrubs appeared on the steps.

“Shut the door, and see that I’m not disturbed for the next thirty minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Duck nodded.

The door shut, and she was alone.

She walked to the far wall, where a shelf held her clean glassware. She pushed it to the side, revealing a heavy steel door. It had one of those ancient metal keypads above the handle. She entered the code, and walked inside, where two badges stood by the wall with metal shackles around their necks.

“You’re still alive, I see. That means the new serum is working.”

“You figured it out, said one of them, cheerfully.”

“Does that mean that you’re ready to be done with those chains?” asked Gem.

“No, ma’am. Please don’t. The effects of the badge drugs haven’t worn off. Please don’t come close. We’re still beholden to the ideals of the badges. We might try to escape or arrest you.”

“You don’t sound like you’re still enslaved by their social sauce.”

“I can feel it inside me, ma’am. I don’t know if I’ll ever give up the policing ideologies.”

“Don’t worry,” said Gem. “I’ll give you your release soon enough, and you won’t be their slave any longer. I’m still having trouble isolating the gene code, but it’s time for a new trial.”

Along the wall near the door stood a steel table with all sorts of equipment loaded on top. She took the thin plastic computer and checked over the results of the last batch. The latest attempt at finding the secret solvent worked perfectly, and she could build the serum one protein at a time. She only needed to find the right combination, and she could start freeing the badges from their drug-induced slavery. They had no chains, no prison, but instead their minds depended on an elixir that carried both a cure for the disease that plagued them, and a serum to ensure that they acted in accordance to the highest ideals of the badges.

Creating the perfect line of police officers came at a cost. Once they signed up, there was no leaving until they were dead, and no fighting back against the system that enslaved them. Even if the patrols would never admit to it, even if their own minds refuted it, they longed to think again for themselves, just like these two. Just like the others before them. They were happy to be in her care, released from the bonds that society placed on them.

She plucked a tiny purple vial from one of the machines, and dropped it into a tray. She grabbed a clean syringe from a box, and opened the packaging. She attached a twenty five gauge needle to the tip, and stripped the plastic safety covering. Dipping it carefully in the tube, she transferred the purple fluid to the syringe, and turned around.

“Who wants to try this one?”

“I’ll take it,” said the quieter of the two. “But I’m still dangerous to you. Can you hold me down, Trill?”

He lay on the ground with one arm behind his back and the other stretched across the concrete floor. The other badge sat on top, and restrained him.

Gem nodded and stuck the officer in his outstretched arm, dumping the fluid into his body. She didn’t have to be precise with the injection, but took care not to trip their warped brains into attacking her. They sometimes reverted back to their implanted instincts of fighting crime, and she didn’t want them to hurt themselves, so she had to be quick.

“You’re injected. I’ll check on you again tomorrow. You guys are eating enough?”

As they climbed to their feet, they responded in unison, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Okay. Hit the buzzer if you need something. Don’t worry. I’ll find a cure.”

As the door slammed shut behind her, she pulled the shelf back into place, wondering about her promise. She would find a cure, but she wasn’t sure how many more of them would need to be sacrificed to that end, and collecting new badges to experiment on was a chore. She hoped the latest combination would fix them. The new protein code should add enough defiance to reject the notions that they were programmed with. Then a new programming could begin. All thanks to a company of simpletons that dumped the precious fluid into the river.


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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

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