The Early Bird Gets The Worm

The clock showed “05:00” its angry red digits flashing trying to provoke a response. Carl saw a blurred red image and rubbed the sleep from his eyes slowly pulling himself out of bed. Staggering to the kitchenette he pulled out the jug from the dispenser and poured himself a cup of steaming hot coffee. After taking a few sips the caffeine started to work its magic on his system. Carl was coming round and pulled on his grey coveralls and got ready for the start of his shift.

Helix City Metroplex was once a bustling hive of commerce and industry. At its peak it had a population of 40 million people but these days there were less than a quarter of the people remaining. The last few years saw millions of people leave the city with the great migration project colonising other worlds in the nearby systems. They were the lucky ones…

Those who either didn’t have the required skills or the wealth that the new wild frontier demanded remained planet-bound to carry on with their humdrum, uneventful lives.

Carl had missed out on some of the more glamorous jobs that existed before the migration and was consigned to working in what many would consider as the ass end of space. Taking the monorail from his sub-level apartment on the outskirts of the city, he watched from the window as the carriage traversed the city heading towards the centre. As the carriage got closer to the centre the buildings became more sophisticated in their design, a remnant of when the city started expanding. With more people to support the city executives decided to produce lower cost housing which became more generic to keep costs down.

The carriage slowed down and ground to a halt just before the city centre. A pre-recorded voice said “Please disembark for Central Utilities” before the doors slid open. Carl left the carriage and made his way along to his workplace. Arriving at the service entrance of Municipal Dump #81 he placed his palm onto the sensor which scanned his identity and registered him for his duty roster.

Heading over to the pool of dumpsters he heard someone shouting his name over the constant background drone.

“Hey Carl! They need you in District 11. No one’s been for 2 days and it’s getting ripe there!” shouted Howie the supervisor.

“Ok boss!” shouted Carl in return.

Carl made his way to the nearest dumpster and climbed aboard. Pressing his palm against the sensor a synthesized voice said “Welcome Carl, your identity has been verified. Commencing ignition sequence!” Reaching into the storage compartment he pulled out his headset and tested the comlink.

“Hello Control, operator Carl calling in!” he spoke into the microphone.

“Hello Carl this is Control you’re clear to take off” said a voice in the static.

Carl took hold of the controls and started his take off. As soon as the dumpster had raised itself above the platform he eased the stick forward and the dumpster began to move forwards. Picking up speed Carl steered the dumpster towards the exit and was greeted by the emerging dawn over the city.

District 11 was some distance away as it was one of the outlying areas of the central city. Carl maneuvered the dumpster along the old dried up canal system and followed the long path weaving through the cityscape for several hours before he finally reached his destination.

As Carl approached District 11 the surroundings took on an almost eerie quality. Swathes of decaying abandoned buildings being reclaimed by the indigenous plant life interspersed with a few buildings that were still occupied. The buildings seemed to take on a stoic appearance in the urban landscape almost as if to say “we shall not be moved” by the decay surrounding it.

Finally Carl had reached the District and it was evident that the place looked like a disaster zone with all the waste material piled high all over the sidewalks. It was going to be a busy day…

While working as a community refuse operative was not a job one would aspire to Carl took his duties seriously, after all he figured people have got to live and with all the refuse lining the sidewalks it was a health hazard attracting all manner of unsavoury creatures.

He stepped out from the dumpster and began his clear up using an old shovel he had inherited from an old colleague. While battered and worn thin it served its purpose and Carl loaded it up and slung the refuse into the rear of the dumpster. The sun was above the zenith and it was quite hot. Beads of sweat formed on Carl’s forehead and his skin glowed with the exertion.

After several hours he had almost filled the dumpster. He stopped for a moment to look at his work, the sidewalks were looking much cleaner which pleased him. As he put his shovel back in the storage compartment he heard a voice calling out.

“Hey you! Sonny!”

Carl turned around and he saw an old woman emerging from her home on the other side of the street. He wasn’t sure how to interpret her so he thought he would play safe.

“Yes Ma’am, how can I help?”

“I’ve got something else to get rid of, have you got room?” the old woman asked.

“Sure, depending on what it is!” Carl replied.

“Oh good” said the old woman “I can’t lift it out by myself as I’m on my own since my husband passed away…” she added.

“No problem, let me take a look” said Carl crossing the street to meet the old woman.

The old woman led Carl into her home and pointed at the homecare droid that sat in the corner of the room in pieces.

“The city gave this to me to help around the home when I got sick. My husband tried to fix it when it broke down but he couldn’t get it going again bless his soul.” The old woman said. “It’s been broken ever since…”

Carl looked at the droid and recognised it as a McMaster Serv-U model from the early days. They didn’t make droids like them anymore. Modern droids were almost indistinguishable from humans. However back then the manufacturer’s made droids which were more functional than aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

The droid was in pretty good shape considering its age and Carl knew a few things about droids as tinkering with old gear was something of a hobby of his.

“It’s a fine looking machine” he said “You know they built these things to last, sure you want me to take it away? I can take a look at it if you like?”

“Well there’s no one around that knows much about these old things nowadays!” the old woman replied.

Carl took a closer look at the droid’s circuitry and figured out what the old lady’s husband had tried to do. Reaching into his pocket Carl retrieved his pocket multi-tool and after selecting the correct tool he started to put the droid back together. Within the hour the droid was re-assembled but it was still not functioning. Carl thought to himself for a moment and remembered hearing about some of the fixes the old engineers used to do to get things working again.

Checking the power gauge he could see that the fusion cells had lost their charge. Fusion cells went out of production at least a decade ago, which concerned Carl as the old woman didn’t say when the droid stopped working. Could she have been without help for 10 years he wondered? He figured that he could rig a substitute using a more modern power source that should easily see the old woman through to the end.

“I need to go out and have a look at what I’ve got in the dumpster” Carl said to the old woman.

Carl crossed the street back to the dumpster and climbed aboard. He rummaged around his haul and found a couple of spare power packs for an old tool that had been thrown out. He checked the specifications and said “That’ll do just fine!”

He returned to the old woman’s home and said “I’ve got something that should do the trick! It’ll take a bit of work but I should be able to rig something up!”

Examining the droids power connectors Carl figured out what he needed to change to accommodate the newer smaller cells and began modifying the wiring and circuitry. A short while later he was able to get the droid to commence its power cycle tests. Satisfied that the droid was stable on the new power cells he issued a verbal command to begin diagnostic testing and commence a full system restart. The droid answered “Commencing level 3 diagnostic… Level 3 diagnostic complete… initiating system restart…” and for what may have been ages the droid powered itself back on and turned and looked at the old woman and spoke to her “Is there anything I can assist with madam?”

The old woman clasped her hands to her mouth and tears welled up in her eyes. “Of course there is please bring us refreshments for myself and this kind young man”.

“As requested madam” the droid replied and then went into the back out of view.

“Where did you learn to do that?” she asked Carl.

“I’ve been tinkering with stuff like this since I was a kid”

“Why on earth are you living down here? With your skills you should be working up there!” the old woman gestured skyward with her finger.

“I guess I missed out when they stopped recruiting for the migration”

“That’s too bad” she said “You would have made a great tech with what you know!”

“Well someone has to stay back and keep this old Earth clean!” Carl said with a smile.

The droid returned from the back of the home carrying some refreshments. “Shall I set things down here madam?” it spoke.

“Oh yes please thank you” she replied. “Now you’ve done me a great service… I’m so sorry can you forgive an old woman for not asking your name”

“It’s Carl ma’am”

“Please share a drink with me Carl, its been a long time since I’ve entertained guests” The old woman poured two glasses of cool liquid and passed a glass over to Carl. Carl sipped at the glass and was grateful for it on such a hot day.

Finishing his drink Carl thanked the old woman for her hospitality and rose from his seat to leave.

“I’d like to give you something in way of payment for what you’ve done”

“It’s ok ma’am, there’s no charge it was my pleasure to work on a classic droid!” he replied.

“Are you sure?” she asked tilting her head.

“Like I said no charge” Carl replied and headed back to the dumpster.

Carl climbed back aboard the dumpster and after confirming his palm on the sensor he started the dumpster up and was about to head back to base when he saw the old woman and the droid standing on the sidewalk. She waved to him and said “Thank you Carl!” he waved back and started the long journey back to the city centre.

After returning dumpster back to base Carl took the monorail back to his apartment and collapsed into his bed fatigued from the long journey and drifted off to sleep…

The next morning the clock flashed “05:00” angrily as it did every day. Carl arose from his slumber and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Staggering into the kitchenette he poured himself another cup of coffee and the morning routine began again…

Leaving the monorail he made his way back into work at Municipal Dump #81. He placed his palm on the sensor and confirmed his identity before entering. Carl was heading over to one of the dumpsters when Howie called him.

“Hey Carl, can you come over I need a word with you!”

“Sure thing Boss” Carl replied and made his way over to the Supervisor’s office. “What’s up?” he asked Howie.

“I’m taking you off the roster” said Howie “We’ve had a transfer order come through. Looks like your luck is changing!”

“How come?” asked Carl quizzically.

“You remember an old gal whose droid you fixed over in District 11”

“Uh-huh” Carl nodded.

“Well she contacted the ‘higher ups’ in the Metroplex Administration and wanted to thank them for the job you done for her. She told them that you’re a wizard with old tech!”

“It was nothing Boss just a bit of tinkering” replied Carl.

“You got her old droid working after her husband passed away 12 years ago and that counts for something” said Howie. “She wanted to pay you for your trouble but you wouldn’t take anything”

“I know I couldn’t!”

“Well it looks like she went and paid it forward for you!” Howie turned his screen around to face Carl and showed him the picture on the screen. It was a small card with three blue stars. “She said it belonged to her husband. You know what it is..?”

“It isn’t… It can’t be…” gasped Carl.

“It’s a third degree migration pass and it’s still valid!” Howie said with a large grin on his face. “Her husband chose to stay on Earth when she didn’t get her pass. She wanted you to have it!”

Carl was speechless, all his life he had dreamed and wondered what it would be like to leave the Earth and now his chance had come. Howie stood up and extended his hand to Carl “I wish I was going with you but you know someone’s got to stay behind to keep this old Earth clean!”