The Wandering Island Factory (5 page)

BOOK: The Wandering Island Factory
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[Chapter 8]

He picked up the phone and called the control room. "Yes, this is Jason down in the. . . yes, that's right, the 'to chilled air injector' is hovering near it's red line. . . No, no sir, that's not the number I see here. . . yes sir," he then reported the numbers off of each of his dials.

Something had gone wrong with the calibration between the electronic and manual sensors. Maintenance would be there in a matter of minutes. It had happened before and was the sole reason for his eyes and patience over the many months.

He surrendered his notebooks and they checked times and dates with those recorded in the computer logs.

He even got praise for his diligence.

As had happened once before, the electronic sensors lost their sensitivity. After much commotion, they were replaced, and his dull task continued as it had before.

The bowels of the ship had given him hours of quiet time to contemplate life. Loud, sure, it was deafening down there, but the headphones protected him from the intense sound. To his ears, the squeaks were muffled to a distant rocking chair.

He listened to MP3s of his favorite late-night show, mixed with music.

Over the last year, he had become addicted to Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. It seemed the perfect mix of paranoid insanity, conspiracy theory, ghost stories, and NASA scientists with PHDs as far as the eye could see. Both ends of the spectrum, and somehow the host seemed to balance it all perfectly. It came complete with people like Gina's mother who claimed to go fishing with Bigfoot and get abducted by aliens on a regular basis.

If she was crazy, as her children believed, she was certainly not alone. It also helped put crazy into perspective.

Diligently, he continued taking notes and reading dials.

The dials changed, depending on what the behemoth was building. They had stopped building island components and shifted to tidal generators, and the dials reflected it. Tidal generators seemed to be misnamed. They didn't generate anything from tides, they generated power from the waves. But water parks already had 'wave' generators that made waves in giant pools, so to avoid confusion, it received a less accurate name.

The tidal generators were dozens of six-foot long slabs that were later connected into what resembled a hundred-foot floating pier. The 'piers', assembled locally, consisted of joining the slabs with hydraulic rams acting like joints that allowed each segment to rise and fall independent of each other while holding rigidly against lateral movement. Acting like compressors, the rams drove a generator that pumped electricity to the mainland via marine cables. Any excesses or insufficiencies due to the irregularity of the waves were stored pneumatically in a large pressurized tank at the end of the pier.

The amount of power delivered by such tidal 'piers to nowhere' was insignificant compared to what a single thermal generator could produce (with a fraction of the footprint). But environmentalists preferred the 'piers to nowhere', much like they preferred hundreds of thousands of unsightly windmills over a single nuclear plant.

The protests and controversy revolving around the first floating island had put future island orders in limbo, hence the change in construction.

The thousands of unhappy construction workers that were laid off somehow translated into anger toward the few unaffected workers at the behemoth, like it was their fault instead of the fault of spineless politicians.

By late summer, they switched to making a new kind of generic slabs that could be used for tidal generators, or for a new use pioneered by the construction industry in Florida, floating foundations for coastal homes. The floating foundations, reinforced by steel, provided both a secure hurricane/tornado proof basement and the ability to float the entire house to keep it from suffering flood damage. It was becoming one of their most lucrative products while the legalities of the island concept were still being disputed.

They were also the most amusing to watch as they were being shipped. Two tugboats pulled several miles-long strings of floating slabs tied by steel cables off into the distance like a giant strand of floating pearls. It reminded him of the cans tied behind 'just married' cars. Or single file ducklings.

By fall, one of the Tonga islands had built a smaller land-based factory for making generic tidal-block-sized slabs in direct competition with the behemoth. The overhead of a ship this size, plus the backroom dealings they had to make with the government of Hawaii, put them at a huge disadvantage to the simple Tonga design.

Fortunately, with a few well-placed campaign contributions (the legalized version of bribes), the resistance to the construction of floating islands was finally dropped in the form of a bill, signed into law, and the behemoth went back to what it, and only it, did best. Huge, aircraft carrier-sized slabs started to pile up behind the ship again. And thousands of locals were hired back to their well paying jobs.

Shifts tightened when new software and injector heads were installed. He only had one week off for every month of solid, twelve-hour shifts, but the money was great.

He woke on the mainland with Gina in his bed.

They had talked about getting married about a month ago. His job required strange hours, and it left him with the feeling that he was always just visiting. They hadn't fought over anything yet.

He kissed her on the cheek, then on the lips when she woke with a smile. "Elope with me," he whispered. "Come back to the states with me next year, at the end of my contract. Let's find real jobs where we get to spend every day together. I love you, but this feels like we are always on vacation with each other. Hawaii is awesome, but it is a hundred times more difficult to find a job here than in the states."

"I have another two years of cla—"

"That you can take anywhere. I just—" but he wasn't going to argue with her. "I don't know if they're going to keep me on past this contract, and it doesn't look like I'd be able to pick up anything locally. Not in this market. And I just don't want to go back to a long-distance relationship, not when I was really getting to know you."

She lay silently by his side.

"Your family is here, I know. I understand the struggle you are a part of, here. It's one of the many things that I admire about you." He lit two cigarettes, then handed her one while he contemplated the road his words were starting to travel. "I just want normal, you know."

She exhaled toward the ceiling. "Normal is harder to find than everyone thinks."

There was only so much pressure he could put on her.

"If you go back home and the distance doesn't work out," she took another drag and held back a morning cough, "then it wasn't meant to be, I guess."

"Yeah, but, I mean for this to be. I really like you, Gina, and what's more, I'm fairly head over heels right now." He put his cigarette out. "I can't imagine being that far away from you again. It would be incredibly painful for me." But he was worried about the end of his contract. What he did, though important, could be done by anyone. It didn't warrant the large sums he was getting. At some point he was sure they were going to figure that out too, even though his diligence had saved them once already, this kind of luck never lasted but so long. He held her hand to his chest, then kissed her fingers.

She smiled, but took another drag on the cigarette.

"How are the classes coming, by the way?"

"C's & B's, a few A's." She sat and faced him. "There's a reason why I didn't get on a plane to see you. Bold and adventuresome isn't who I am. It probably will never be. I lack that kind of, spontaneity. I like the security of ruts." She took a deep drag, then lay back down. "I think I'd lose my mind if I was ever hundreds of miles away from my family. Let alone thousands of miles." She blew a smoke circle and watched it drift to the ceiling. "Some kids ache to leave home far behind them. That just isn't me."

He knew what she was saying. He wanted to be considered part of her family, but wasn't yet. And may never be. But it wouldn't keep him from trying.

There was an old saying about you weren't just marrying the girl, but her entire family too. He liked them all, even the slightly odd mother and very distant sister. He wasn't prepared to move so he could live near them, but in a way, that was exactly what he had been asking her to do. To move away from her family to be nearer to his.

He watched her enjoy the last half-inch of her cigarette as he contemplated how much further he was willing to go, just for one particular girl.

But, he already knew.

[Chapter 9]

"Jason," Buck said as he visited the bowels of the behemoth. "Your year is almost up. Look, uh, this is never easy to say or do, but—"

In the sauna of the bowels, a chill suddenly ran through him. Even in this humidity, his mouth went dry.

"See, we have to either give you a raise or let you go. After your diligence, I argued for giving you the raise. . . but, I don't make those calls." He put his hand on Jason's shoulder, "Sorry," and handed him his final check.

Jason folded his notebook, then opened the envelope. Pink was beside the white. He got up and caught Buck before he left sight of the gauges. "Listen, Buck, is this final? Because, I didn't ask for a raise, and, you know, I realize— Look, I'd stay at the same pay— Listen, I have a girlfriend here on the mainland so, when I say the money isn't the top item on my list, I mean it isn't." He pulled the pink slip out and handed it back, "I mean, Buck, if this is final, it's final. But I'm fine with making the same, if it means I stay near the mainland. Now, if you guys pulled up anchor, I would probably have had to quit."

"I'm pretty sure it's final, Jason, but I'll see for sure." Buck took the slip with him.

Jason opened his notebook and sat back by the dials. The check included a bonus that was meant to cover the airline ticket home, but it would cover the next few days just as well.

He stared at the needles as they jiggled slightly when the behemoth adjusted to forming the interiors of complex rooms and corridors, hidden in carrier-sized forms.

He had been fired before. Actually, fired wasn't the right word for this, they simply didn't feel the need to renew his contract. Not that that didn't result in the same thing.

He wanted desperately to stay and had no idea how to break it to Gina. He hadn't banked up enough to coast on an island as expensive as Hawaii and would either have to find a new job and place to stay, within a week, or buy a ticket and leave. His pitiful account didn't offer him any more flexibility than that.

A raise would have been nice, and it was long overdue, but getting paid much more than he was for sitting. . . he would have fired him too.

He felt a tear welling up, but choked it back down.

He thought of Gina. This could end everything.

Was all of this, for nothing.

No.

No, it wasn't all for nothing. He had something with her. In person, she seemed distant and aloof most of the time. But she wasn't. She was slow and cautious, but she was inching closer.

Without a doubt, they would continue to chat online. But with as much as could be done online, there was just as much that online relationships couldn't do.

He didn't want to be fired, and he most assuredly didn't want to go back to a long-distance relationship.

He wanted desperately to keep the status quo.

He got off the boat at the docks, then started walking to the hotel. His account had little to show for all his labor, but his credit was good. And the company had given him seven days at the hotel to arrange for a ticket home.

He started asking around.

Finding a job was difficult, nearly impossible with a hotel room listed as his residence. But his seemingly fruitless interviews did leave him with the impression that he could, in fact, find something locally after all. That it wasn't totally bleak.

On his second day out, he lied and used Gina's address instead of the hotel.

On his last day on the mainland before needing to buy a ticket home, a cleaning company showed some interest. They cleaned rooms in beachfront rentals when the occupants left. Tubs, toilets, rugs, carpets and beds. Those were mostly seasonal positions, but this was the season and they needed extra hands.

He took it and would start his probation Tuesday. But, should he get on regular, they also cleaned parkinglots and had contracts with some local stores and offices.

Something between maid and janitor, it was about the same as what he made on the behemoth, minus overtime and other perks. But it still wouldn't be enough to live on his own. And, to work it, he would need a car. For now, Gina agreed to drive him around in her old Honda. Her family even let him stay with them, as crowded as it was, so long as he helped out with the rent.

[Chapter 10]

Gina picked him up at the gate of the fenced in, ritzy beach community. He sat in the passenger-side seat, smelling of pine and lemons, as they silently drove home. Awkward silence surrounded them as the windows rattled while she spun down the road. Her radio had never worked, but living in an always noisy and crowded home, she cherished the silence and never thought of fixing it.

He felt compelled to say something. His days were spent cleaning other peoples' homes, often with no one to talk to, much like his silence in the bowels of the behemoth. But he fought the urge and relaxed back into the faded bucket seat.

"You have time to stop by the bank?" he asked, remembering the check in his pocket.

She looked at her watch. "No, I'm almost late as it is. I'll have to drive straight to the bar, and you'll have to drive it home. Remember, I get off at 1 AM." She looked at him, then back at the road in time to speed around another sharp turn.

"No problem." He tried to be quiet again.

He fought the urge to kiss her or hug her before she hurried into the bar. She limited public displays to holding hands, and even then she was visibly uncomfortable when it went past a few minutes. The same rules seemed to apply in parkinglots and in front of her family as well.

But that didn't mean he couldn't do anything. He waved and smiled as he waited for her to get inside, then took his position behind the wheel. He sat a few minutes, just in case she had forgotten something, while he checked behind the seats for her purse, then started the car and headed home, with a slight detour by the bank.

Money was very tight, much tighter than Gina had let on. They were perpetually late with the rent and just managed to keep a week ahead of having a random utility shut off. He surrendered most of his check to Gina's mother, who promptly took the car and sped off to keep ahead of another cutoff date.

He showered while nobody was home, then fell asleep on Gina's bed.

Bzzzz!!

He sat up, then smacked the alarm. 11:30 PM.

Gina needed to be picked up in about an hour, but he had to kill some time first. Nathan was blaring music from the other room while carrying on a conversation with friends, but it wasn't too distracting. Jason hadn't acclimated to his new schedule yet, but the melatonin was helping with that.

He left for the bathroom, then the kitchen.

Pulling some leftover pasta from the fridge, he looked for a plate to put it on.

Nothing. All dirty and piled in the sink, as usual.

Still soaking in cold water, Makayla had obviously started to do them, but had been interrupted. Fishing for the plug, he let it drain while adding hot from the tap back in, then, much like on his day job, he started cleaning them while the paste reheated in the microwave.

His first few days on the job were the worst. He had been timid about doing 'woman's work'. Sure, give him a deep carpet shampooer or a steam cleaner and let him go to town, but scrubbing toilets, showers, and dishes. . . that just seemed on the other side of the macho line. But, that was the job. Those tasks were the least liked by everyone, and the first he had been given. Entry level.

He rinsed the first plate, then put it in the rack to dry.

Dishes were probably the easiest of his jobs. Half the homes had automatic dishwashers anyway, and in those that didn't, the tenants tended to clean them before they left. Unfortunately for him, it didn't matter if the previous tenants cleaned them or not, he still had to wash them again. But, cleaning clean dishes was far easier than what vacationing frat boys left. Sometimes it looked like they tried to cook a plastic GI-JOE in a frying pan.

Some almost needed plastic sheets for the beds. That was the more disturbing part of cleaning vacation homes. The woman he most often worked with, Maria, used a spray-on scotch guard to protect the mattresses in her assigned homes. It worked wonders on the furniture too.

But already once this week they had to use the steam cleaner designed for carpets on a mattress to remove what everyone hoped was a wine stain.

Ding!

The reheated pasta was ready. He drained the water out of the sink before sitting at the table to eat.

Gina's home life could be called chaotic, but Makayla did remarkably well for a single mom. They rarely had more than one car, and had long learned the art of coordinating the travels of multiple people across days and weeks, often without incidents. They rarely had anything new, but all their secondhand items were well cared for and as nice as they could be. Furniture didn't match, not even within the same room, but each piece was in fine working condition. The plates seemed assembled from the remnants of three different sets, yet had no cracks or chips among them.

He always felt comfortable around her family. Overall, it was amazing that Gina drank as little as she did. Makayla was rarely seen without a drink in her hand, and none of her kids remembered seeing her without one. The Ex and most of the men Makayla dated drank heavily too, that just seemed to be the circles she traveled in.

Glasses often accumulated by the mother's bed or were scattered throughout the apartment, but he rarely tried to hunt them down. Since he did more than his share of dishes, he almost always had a clean one, after a fashion of course.

From the kitchen he heard the door open and the rustle of bags, but he continued eating his meal.

Makayla had come in through the front door with two arms of groceries, headed for the kitchen. "Steven," she said in the living room as she handed Ava's boyfriend both bags and aiming him at the kitchen, "you dropping my little girl off, or picking up?"

"Dropping off," he said, bashfully, "she wanted to see the last showing of that—"

But Makayla just pushed him toward the kitchen while she poured herself a finger of Scotch. "Drop them off too, while you're at it."

Steven walked in as Jason was finishing up his pasta. "I'll put them away," Jason said, knowing where most of it was going.

Steven waited, a bit puzzled now that he had nothing to do. "Where's Gina?"

Jason checked his watch, "Still at work." He sorted cans as he filled the cabinet under the microwave, then put the cereal on the shelf by the refrigerator. "Why aren't you with Ava in her room?"

"Well, she. . . uh, well—"

Jason had known that Ava was just about done with Steven. The only one at the house who didn't know was the boy he had just asked. "So, what was the movie about?"

"Oh, uh, it was that Will Smith one that everyone was raving about. It didn't have enough action in it for me. You know, sure, he's got some acting chops but, that ain't enough to hold my interest. No car wrecks, no car chases, no gun fights, Hell, I don't even think I ever saw him run!"

"Chick flick?" Jason said, folding up the empty bags and putting them away.

"Total."

It was sad that Steven didn't know what was coming his way. He wasn't a bad guy, he just wasn't what Ava was looking for, right now. A chill ran through him. What if Gina was breaking up with him, too? Would he know, or would he be this clueless too? Gina's normal persona was cool and a little distant, that would make it especially hard to tell.

"Hey uh, you worked on the behemoth, right?" Steven said sitting down.

"Yeah, that's right, but not anymore."

"What, uh, what happened?"

"Well, my contract was over, and they didn't want to renew. Technically, it was a layoff, not fired, but the results was the same."

Steven looked toward the living room where Makayla was settling down to some TV. He pulled the chair closer. "High pay?"

"Oh, it was nice for what little I did. I just sat in a sauna-like room and babysat some gauges. Can't get any better than that. But, high pay? Not exactly. It had perks, though. Free room and board, discount meals. They rented a room on the mainland for our week off. All that was nice. It really insulated us from the high prices of everything on the island."

"Saw in the news that they were gearing up to make one or two a year, now that the legal stuff was cleared up."

"Yeah, well, I mean, they kinda had to. It's a boat, it can go anywhere, sell, or uh, pay taxes in any country they wanted. Mind you, the chemistry of Hawaii lava seemed prefect, but all they need is an active, steady flow, without risking an eruption."

"Well, it's getting very fashionable among the billionaires' club. That first one is already decked out and working right now off of North Carolina. They say they charge fifty thousand a night to rent out one of the conference rooms, plus rooms and amenities. Saw a helicopter tour of the topside, looks like a cross between a golf course and the Garden of Eden."

Jason smiled, but checked his watch. "Yeah, saw that too. Said they were going to keep it within a hundred miles from shore until the weather starts to turn, then head south to Brazil. The CEO, what was his—"

"Arkolo Handstone, I think—"

"That's right, they have several manufacturing sites in Brazil and in the Carolinas. Still a little foggy on just what it is they build."

"They said, but I can't remember either."

Ava walked into the kitchen, went straight past Steven and opened the fridge. "You ought to be getting home now, shouldn't you?" she smiled at Steven as he quietly got up and headed out.

He knew, on some level.

Jason checked his watch again, then left to pick up Gina. He planned to be early this time.

BOOK: The Wandering Island Factory
6.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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