‘Last Address’, Brian Olszewski

Illustrations © 2018 Miguel Santos



 [ Ruddy drink, © 2018 Miguel Santos ] Vye Grund’s eyes followed the gliding path of the vertical red line spanning the height of the grimed window. It drifted over the length of the reinforced glass and scanned her motionless teen frame, sliding across her chest and face. The infrared stripe passed Vye’s pinched eyes, momentarily flooding her retinas a flaring scarlet. She didn’t blink and asked her father, seated behind her, “You sure it will hold all of them?” Vye stared at the empty stage in the common square. The company reps wouldn’t take the platform until every colonist was accounted for.

With his back to the front door, Mechanic Brekk Grund sat at the small kitchen table. A number of stabilizing mods over the years had kept it sturdy and wobble-free as the day it had been issued with the two bedroom pre-fabber he and Vye had inhabited at Reirn, an isolated mining outpost. “It’ll do the job. One last time.”

Mismatched metal panels—some corrugated, many rusted, all differently sized—comprised the temporary stage outside. It had been salvaged from deteriorating mining machinery and the scraps of what remained of dilapidated storehouses. Brekk had demonstrated its efficacy to Superintendent Hale the previous night by lumbering across the patchwork of dented and fatigued plates while carrying two loaded tool crates.

Vye watched her father hunch over his ruddy drink. At the bottom of the glass was an assortment of nuts, washers and small bolts.

She waited for her father to stop the announcement, to fix it like he fixed everything else and had trained her to do. Barely sixteen and still growing into her body, Vye was to succeed him as Reirn’s Master Mechanic next year. She wasn’t ready.

“And the RL?” Brekk asked without turning.

The abbreviation stressed a company function, not the identity of the current regional liason, Zaren Smoth. The company had made little effort to know the colonists, so the colonists had decided to unknow it, in part, by only knowing the emissaries sent to Reirn by job title.

Showy with its heavy guns and armored limbs, a security team huddled around RL Smoth next to the stage. Snippets of a tight blond braid and a reinforced company windbreaker peeked from behind the shielding ring of dark blue uniforms.

“Still ground bound,” Vye said.

Brekk grunted something under his breath.

Vye couldn’t reconcile the lethargic man at the table with the man of action that she remembered, who a year ago still hustled from domicile to digger to drill, from the garages to the pits, always a tool in hand, always ready for any task. He was slowed now, by the burdens of age, decades of dust and what he owed to family, his other family. Vye bit her bottom lip, stifling words that would make it harder for both of them.

Outside, colonists shirked faceshields and filtration masks, even though the air quality reached the “unhealthy” mark. It wasn’t a communal display of strength that Vye saw. It wasn’t a performance of immunity to the elements. Low air pressure. Emissions from machines and vehicles. Swirling winds twisting the sands beyond the hills. Polluting black dust from the mines and pits. None out there escaped the conditions that incubated all the microlates blooming in the degraded Reirnian air.

No. It was an ethic. Vye knew that the gathered wanted the RL to see their faces, to look at them in the eyes, to force her to know her addressees, if only superficially, if only for the duration of her perfunctory speech. It was the only thing the colonists could make her do.

Vye withdrew her hands from the window frame, swiping graying slashes of fine powder on her dark hooded tunic. The dust always snuck in. Cloud-quiet, even with all the cracks and doorways sealed and the ventilators running, it crept deeper into homes, equipment and human bodies, burrowing inside things, until it became inseparate from them, an unnatural second skin for appliances, engines and lungs. Over time, it swarmed surfaces that it claimed, as if it were meant to, as if it were its right, its destiny all along.

“I wiped it down last night,” Brekk said, peering over his shoulder. “You’re going to have to be vigilant.”

“Dust is for a time.” Vye muttered the ubiquity without thinking.

She didn’t notice her father’s concentrated stare, while she rubbed her thumb on the tips of her index and middle fingers. Dusting had its time and place within Reirn’s natural order, unavoidable as breathing.

“It is, and it will have everything and everyone here eventually.” Brekk’s dry cough interrupted his cadence. “Our water filtration system is on the brink. Homes are falling apart. None of us lives past 60.” He rubbed his eyes and stared at the family image on the wall taken at Vye’s first birthday. Her mother held her, and Brekk’s arms encircled them both. “Everything is in decay.”

Vye’s gaze found the image, too. “Not everything.”

“And that stage,” Brekk began, not listening. “It’s the story of our people, barely hanging on, barely hanging together, at the end of our utility, and the company just walks over us, like it has from the start. Reirn never was a home for it like has been to us—a place, a place holder. A place for its things. That’s all Reirn has ever been to the company. A place for its dusted things.” His gray eyes hardened. “These are Reirn’s last days. This is our last address, but—”

“You taught me that this won’t be the end, though. For all those years, you taught me that.” She fingered the worn coin in her pocket, older than her, older than her father, feeling the history of the two numbers carved into one side of the uneven metal.

“And you were—are a good student. Maybe too good.” His lips tightened. He nodded and swallowed more boomshine. Brekk cleared his throat. The edge in his voice dulled. “Come here.” He held out his hand.

Vye stepped toward her father and took his leathery hand in hers.

He pulled her close and tightened his hug. “I’m ... If I could ... I’m sorry,” he breathed.

“Shhh. It’s OK,” she whispered through trembling lips.

She nestled into his lap and dug her fingers into his back, resting her head on his shoulder. She smelled the bite of garage-made alcohol on his breath. She squeezed her eyes shut. No tears. They had both promised.

Unsaid words enveloped the silence.

Brekk kissed her shorn head and then rubbed the rough stubble. “You won’t ever be alone—”

“Do you think this is an equal trade? You for them?” She pushed herself away and jutted her head at the door, her eyes wide. “A thousand of them won’t make me not feel your absence, won’t make me not think of you every day, won’t make me like them any more. I don’t care about the greater family.”

“Vye—”

Vye waved her hand and stepped toward the window. With her back facing her father she closed her eyes and tried to make everything slow down, her heart, her thoughts, the seconds. When she opened her eyes the troop was ascending the stage. “She’s heading up.”

Brekk lifted his glass and stared at the sliver of drink before he finished it off. The metal bits in the bottom of the glass pealed when he set it on the table.

The security team fanned out around RL Smoth, gripping their angled rifles. Heavy steps clanked against the reinforced cuts of metal siding, reverberating throughout the square. She approached the lectern with security personnel beside her.

A hacking cough broke the silence among the scattered attendees. Otherwise, the woman on the stage elicited the slightest of reactions from the crowd: shifts in weight, smirks, hat adjustments, kicks to the dirt, and spits that rolled into darkened saliva-clusters atop loose earth.

RL Smoth adjusted her voice enhancer so everyone indoors heard. “Thank you all for coming out today,” she began. “I just want to say a few words—” She turned, a thin frown etched above her goggles.

The soldier next to her continued to test his weight on the platform square that supported the lectern, pressing a leg downward into it. He shrugged.

Vye watched the soldier and RL bob up and down, as if rocking on a slightly agitated trampoline.

RL Smoth shrieked as she fell throught the collapsing stage. Crumpled metal creaked and clattered, thudding bodies against the earth that had stood near the lectern. Still-standing soldiers barked and rushed round the newly formed pit, extending arms into steel wreckage. Those at the platform’s wobbling edges aimed rifles at the crowd.

A chorus of laughter erupted in the audience, which lost momentum with a series of wheezing coughs.

“Make sure the door is unlocked.” Brekk hadn’t moved. His hold on the glass bulb tightened.

“It is,” Vye said, still at the window.

Father and daughter were in sync again, the master-apprentice tandem that shaped metal and controlled concentrated flames in the shabby hut of a garage, working together now as if it weren’t the last time they would.

The security team regrouped and established a perimeter around the stage, shielding RL Smoth from the colonists.

“Everyone knows I worked alone. If they try to drag you into this—” Brekk began.

“They won’t.” Vye shook her head. “Everyone is out there now. They’re not going to arrest me and parade me around in front of the entire colony. They’re not that stupid.”

“Mmm.” Brekk reached for a carafe and poured a caramel-hued liquid into his glass that didn’t hide the sunken geometric steel in it.

“OK. Looks like everyone’s fine. They’re helping her up.” Vye said. “Cleaning her up now. She isn’t happy.”

“It’s not a big drop. No one should be hurt.” Brekk added, “That mud should have cushioned the fall, too, at least for her, since she isn’t wearing tactical gear.”

“They’re clearing a way through crowd. Everyone, well, almost everyone is out there,” Vye said. “Pointing at our trailer now. Here they come.” She bit her bottom lip.

“Is he with them?” Brekk asked.

“Leading the way.” The RL was right behind the superintendent.

“Of course. Good.” Brekk nodded. “He’ll play both ends here. He knows that you didn’t help me last night. Unless you plan on confessing to something that you didn’t—”

“Nope. They’d separate us, anyway. They’re—”

Red dots appeared on the window.

A violent kick slammed the door against the wall, rattling the small home at its foundation.

“Dammit, Superintendent. The door was unlocked,” Brekk said, without turning.

 [ Three red spots, © 2018 Miguel Santos ] Three red spots settled on Brekk’s back. More found Vye.

Superintendent Hale strode inside and RL Smoth followed him, stepping aside to allow the laser pointers to find Brekk again.

“Tell them to stand down, will ya?” Superintendent Hale said, his gaze moving from Brekk to Vye. “She’s just a kid.”

RL Smoth raised a hand and lowered her index finger, her narrowed eyes trained on Vye, who remained near the window with raised hands, scowling.

The dots disappeared from Vye’s chest. But they still jittered on her father’s back.

“What the hell, Brekk?” Superintendent Hale said. “What the hell was that?” Hale always talked loud. It was his way of reminding everyone of his position, as if talking at a normal volume would undercut his authority. But he verged on yelling now, with his chest stuck out and arms akimbo.

“Old equipment. Overused and repurposed. Just like everything else around here, except the people who can’t seem to make it to old age.” Brekk didn’t even twitch his shoulders.

RL Smoth removed her factory-fresh mask and swung it at her side. She inhaled with conspicuous exaggeration, smiling all the while. “Ahh. Good to take that thing off. Nothing beats the real stuff, even when it coats your inside like a good steak rub. I’ll take it from here, Superintendent.” She slid by him to stand next to Brekk.

Superintendent Hale nodded. He tugged at his belt, which secured the ill-fitting pants that had arrived with the company convoy; crisp and bright, they were just as loose in the waist and long in the leg as the faded pair splayed out on the floor near his bed.

“You wouldn’t have an extra towel handy, Mechanic Grund, would you?” RL Smoth asked. “The fall wasn’t much—startling, of course—but nothing much at all. For some reason, though, it was muddy underneath the stage. Curious. The rest of the colony is so dry. See.” She held out her arms and swiveled at the hip, showing the soiled blotches on her uniform.

“Probably from when we hosed it down,” said Brekk, staring at his glass. “We didn’t want all that rust and grit on there for you.”

“Well, don’t worry about me, I am OK, thanks for asking,” said RL Smoth.

“I didn’t—”

“I’ll freshen up in a bit.” Her words were tight and sharp. She flung her long, blonde braid over her shoulder. “Interesting looking drink, Mechanic Grund.” She leaned closer to it, tapping her mask at the table’s corner. “Hmm.” She wiggled it to little effect then rapped the tabletop with her knuckles. “Despite the wear and tear, this table is rock solid. I bet a mechanic like you can keep just about anything in working order, almost as good as new, at least functionally speaking.” RL Smoth stepped to the other side of the table. She stared at the drink, still tapping her mask.

“We make do.”

“We have to,” said Vye, stuffing her hands under her arms, not knowing what else to do with them, staring at all the guns trained on her father, ignoring those ready to be aimed at her again.

“Vye.” Brekk shook his head.

“I know that, dear. One might say that you were made for such conditions. You are all so hearty and resourceful,” RL Smoth said, her eyes still on Brekk’s drink. “That’s the unfortunate reason why we have to point these weapons at your father, isn’t it?”

“Point them at me all you want just—”

“Ice is hard to come by out here in this over-sunned, rocky wasteland.” RL Smoth flicked the base of the glass. “Souvenirs, maybe?”

“We haven’t had ice in a while. So we chill spare nuts and bolts outside overnight. It gets surprisingly cold out there.” He met her hazel eye to send a clear message. “I found this bunch near the stage last night.” He inched the glass toward her. “Help yourself. Our water is the cleanest it’s been a while.”

“Indeed.” RL Smoth smiled at Hale and clasped her hands. “Thank you for that wonderful story, Mechanic Grund. I’m sure that you’ve been practicing that little speech for me all night and all morning. Bravo.” She nodded. “Well, superintendant. That’s a good enough confession for me. Right here in this glass Mechanic Grund has saved for us all the little reasons why the stage fell apart.

Superintendent Hale bent toward it. “I told you. It wasn’t an accident.” He looked at Vye again. “Stinking dust bunnies,” he snarled through tight teeth. “Always making life harder than it needs to be.”

“Same dust is on you, company shill.” Vye glowered. “Same dust.”

The superintendent took a step toward her with clenched fists. “Not for long, girl.”

Brekk stood up, sending his chair skidding into Hale, over whom he towered. He spun around, daring Hale to take another step toward his daughter.

Hale kicked the chair away. “Watch yourself,” he said, pointing at Brekk, smiling at the all those red marks dancing on the mechanic’s chest.

“Relax, gentlemen. Relax.” RL Smoth walked between the men. “So, easily provoked, aren’t they?” She looked at Vye, who had tightened into a knot of unmoving bones and flesh. “It’s a wonder that you’ve lasted this long out here, Hale. I don’t know how you survived. I mean, you are out of your element,” said a smiling RL Smoth.

“I serve at the leisure of the company, ma’am,” Superintendent Hale mumbled. “Anywhere, anytime.”

“Yes. Yes. Of course. And we thank you for it. I am sure that you’ll be taken care of when the operation shuts down.” RL Smoth gestured at the soldiers. “Secure Mechanic Grund and escort him to the shuttle.”

“What about her?” Hale pointed at Vye.

“The mechanic is dead. Long live the mechanic. She’s your last one, Hale.” RL Smoth dipped her head toward Hale. “I would stay off the stages she builds, though.” She smirked. “Let’s go, people. I want him on the shuttle a minute ago.”

Two soldiers cuffed Brekk and pushed him toward the door. He didn’t resist.

RL Smoth affixed the mask over her mouth. “Play my recorded announcement for them. They obviously don’t need the personal touch. I mean, it’s not like they don’t know Reirn is no longer needed. The news preceded my arrival,” she told Hale. “It always does. Colonists, they tend to know these things one way or another, like it descends from the sky, from some cloud that watches over them.” She straightened her jacket. “If it were only so,” she said to Vye with a mocking grin. “If it were only so. We know how fast news travels down the rail line.”

Vye watched RL Smoth tap a rifle barrel that kissed her father’s back.

“We don’t need to aim these anymore,” RL Smoth said, turning to Vye. “I think everyone here has gotten the point.”

Vye half-listened, capturing the lines on his face with her eyes, the scar above his brow, his crooked nose, the unkempt beard in the remaining seconds they had together.

“I will leave a squadron behind in case there are further complications,” RL Smoth said to Superintendent Hale. She loped past Brekk as if he wasn’t there and walked outside, cutting a line through the thickening crowd.

Vye watched that golden braid disappear behind the safety of the stage and soldiers without another word for the population of Reirn, which had gathered outside the Grund residence.

Brekk was shoved out the door.

“Be strong, Vye,” Brekk said, using all his strength to maintain eye contact with his daughter.

He was gone before she whispered, “You too, Papa,” unable to steady her voice for another word. She sucked in the grit, as they said at Reirn, drying out the tears, stifling the pain from the inside, as her father was escorted to a shuttle.

The world became a contradiction. Vye’s body suddenly was a burden, a growing encumbrance for muscles and a skeleton that struggled to keep her standing. But all objects around her bled weight, big and small, heavy or light, as if the essences of everything in the trailer threatened to follow her father in a show of solidarity.

She pushed into the counter, to hold it down, to hold herself up, breathing hard, clenching her teeth behind tight lips, cracked dry. Then Vye turned toward the window, seeing the thronging colonists outside.

They tipped hats when her father passed, as soldiers gripped his arms tight. The miners holding jack guns laid them at their feet when Brekk went by, a communal “thank you” from the greater family.

“You’ll see none of that kind of respect from me, kid.” Superintendent Hale hadn’t left yet. “Your first job is to reassemble the stage. Alone. And I want you to use these bits to do it.” He picked up the glass and threw it against the wall. It shattered, sending the nuts and bolts rolling under furniture. “It better be put together by suns up.”

Vye looked at the washer that stopped at her foot.

“Actually, your first job is to find all those fasteners and connectors that I dropped. Be careful not to cut yourself.” Superintendent Hale turned but paused, lowering his voice. “I never counted you guys as among the dumb sort,” he said, crunching glass as he stepped toward her. “Your dad was close to retiring. He just had to keep his head down and fix the junk around here, or wherever he would’ve worked out the remainder of his contract. Now he’s going to work the salt mines for at least five years. That’s hard on the body, especially one that’s getting up there in years.”

“He has family there,” Vye said. “He’s not worried. I’m not worried,” she said, needing to hear those words.

“Yeah. I know that.” Hale ran his hand through his hair. He exhaled. “But I also know he’s going to miss one family member more than any other.” Hale raised his eyebrows and nodded. He straightened his back, waiting for a response. When none came, he pivoted and shouldered his way through the crowd outside.

A friendly face with deep lines in her weathered forehead peeked into the doorway. “Hey. You OK, Vye?”

“Yeah,” she said, eyeing Hale sandwich himself between two soldiers near the concave stage.

“Your dad, he’s—”

“Gonna be fine,” Vye said. That’s what he’d told her all these years, prepping her for this day. That it hadn’t been a matter of them or her. It was a matter of them all, everyone at Reirn, everyone cracking rocks and tunneling earth throughout the company’s galaxial holdings. It wasn’t one or the other. Without the greater family, there was no one, he often said.

“So are you. We’re going to see to it.” The concern in the soft eyes was earnest.

“Thanks. I know.” Vye forced out the words and turned away.

From the stoop the woman slunk into the crowd.

Vye felt her and everyone else behind her, like they were waiting for her.

She bent down and picked up the moistened washer streaked with clumping dust, feeling the warmth of the morning suns on her back. Vye held the washer tight, like she had gripped her father’s chunky index and middle fingers when a child, like she had held tool-handles in the garage as an adolescent, like she had clutched for the first time the metal ring that her father had fashioned for her mother for their union ceremony, like she had pressed the small disc with “58” carved onto its otherwise blank face when her father had given her his drawing-day number, the disc that he had drawn on his 18th birthday designating his obligation to the greater family would occur during his 58th year of life, which now in her pocket pressed snug against her thigh on Reirn’s death day.

Vye took a deep breath, as if she attempted to inhale all the memories she had of her father, imprinting them on her lungs. She picked up a cup and grabbed the turned-over chair. She sat down at the table where her father had waited all morning, not bothering to shut the front door, not caring how many people stared at her back. She dropped the washer into the glass, where it landed with a “plink.”

You are potential. Each Reirnian can block. Clog. Actualize that power. Congesting agent. One dust speck. Never alone. Part of a cloud. Become dust. Slow the company machine. From within. Overpower it. Swarm it. A cloud of dust. Surround it. The shared struggle. Resistance. Here. Elsewhere. Rides the solar winds. Gathers strength. A tempest is born. A family. Your endless family. The greater family. As one. Stronger than the rocks that we break. Stronger than the company.

The scattered flecks of creed that her father had preached to her over the years sedimented. “Dust is for a time,” Vye said.

Unbound from the mundane, the phrase rang kinetic now, mobilizing a sense of the past, present and future for Vye.

She rose and looked out the window again. Vye focused beyond the colonists, past the crumpled stage and settled her gaze on the parked shuttles cutting shapes into the orange horizon. With binos, she examined the compact frame of RL Smoth’s vessel, noting its shape and contours, the balance of its weight, the thrusters, the wings, seeking out a sense of the whole to locate structural weaknesses.

The air-filtration system clicked on above Vye. She looked at the vent-plate, its ridges grayed in rolling waves that darkened at corners. Dust webs ringed the vent’s edges like the metal had been burnt. The sucking air agitated thicker tresses amassed there, as if awakening them.

Despite the droning fan whirling the indoor air clean, Vye felt the dust accumulating on her skin, kissing her body, like bits of herself returning, knowing that she had a home, a place, among the great gathering of familiar faces that lingered outside her door at the dying colony, a home that stretched farther than she could see, to settlements on moons and distant planets, a family that she would harness to rescue her father and more by squeezing that potential tempest of dust into a searing meteor that leveled the company.


© 2018, Brian Olszewski

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