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The Sunshield’s Heat

The great wall in the sky

After a time I knew better than to wear my uniform on the train. Somehow the protestors and demonstrators had enough time and energy each and every morning to gather at the station and harass anyone with the Sunshield patch on their jumpsuit.

“Why are you doing this?” They would say.

I would shrug and reply, “A paycheck.” The same reason anyone does anything.

Some would plead, even use their bodies to block the turnstile so I could not pass. There is so much work to be done, and the damn thing would fall apart without my comrades and I up there. None were ever swayed, unrelenting in believing that I was the fool. We work too hard to deal with that nonsense.

So on that day I had my suit stuffed in my bag and had just my denim on. The protestors jumped down the throats of new hires who didn’t know any better. Generally, though, they were hounding the vitamin vendors now that supply chain blockages brought the price of vitamin d tablets up to the price of a week’s worth of food per bottle. That’s one of the few perks of the job, I suppose, since I get enough of the stuff from the source.

Lucky for me, there’s enough ambiguity at the shuttle dock for the demonstrators to never know who’s going where. With a flash of my badge I was through to the gate where my coworkers were waiting for the morning shift shuttle up to the shield. Low earth orbit sits just close enough to let me flip through my magazine before docking and locking away everything but the clothes on my back in the hub.

That was the first time I saw poor Henry that day. He wasn’t on the shuttle. Apparently he had worked the night shift but was scheduled for the morning as well, not leaving enough time to shuttle back home before he was to clock in again. He laughed a bit when he showed me the little nest of clothes and towels he’d made himself in the locker room, saying it made a surprisingly decent bed. He’d also apparently just had snacks from the vending machines, happy that he got so many company credits with his paycheck. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the credits were his paycheck.

But with a pat on the back we walked along to get suited up in the trademark reflective yellow suits and the deeply tinted black visors, all emblazoned with the image of the sun. We got stuck in the back of the lines so we were left with the suits no one wanted. They had tears in the fabric, cracks in the visors, and some were even made of the material Sunshield “officially” recalled when it was found to do little to prevent radiation damage. I managed to find one that just had a bit of tear that I sealed with a bit of duct tape from the company store. Henry was stuck between the broken visor or bad fabric. I told him to go with the old suit. The cracked visor would certainly give him pressure sickness and I told him I’d seen too many folks die or worse because of pressure sickness. You can live with radiation.

We were given the day’s task, a list of necessary repairs that never once had I the time to complete all of in the time allotted. Off we went, as always, faced with the visage of the incandescent ball the shield wall protected us from, if those ungrateful fools would ever believe that. I never was sure how past centuries bore its heat and light without protection. The thing was bright enough even with the visor that made it near impossible to see through indoors and the heat on the wall’s panels could give blisters even through the fabric if left on the surface for too long.

Henry and I staked out to panel 125–99, not that it really matters now, and put up a shade so we could work in relative cool to replace some panels that had been mangled by satellite debris. I tethered myself to the closest hook and got to work. Henry was as useless as a rock in my boot, forgetting where we were in the process, dropping screws and ties that were surely coming out of both of our paychecks as they went skittering down the silver face of the shield.

I noticed then that he was not tethered down. He was new, but even a simpleton knows not to walk the shield not tied to something. Sleepily, slurring his words through the radio in my helmet he said he wasn’t allowed one since he’d already checked one out within 24 hours. Poor bastard, I thought. There was no way to win. If he returned that would be a strike. If he stood around gripping the handholds all day that would be a strike for him and for me for letting someone be unproductive under my supervision. I told him he would just have to be careful. In my four years up here, I’d slipped less than a dozen times so the odds were in his favor.

What a stupid, stupid thing to say.

For two hours we worked, Henry being so slow I would have been faster without him. He stumbled once, digging his heel into a seam. He slipped again, falling flat on his face but managing to grab the not yet fastened corner of the replacement panel. He was getting sloppier and sloppier. But as our break neared, I figured he could maybe squeeze in a quick nap in the bathroom.

But instead, he went so quiet for so long, I figured he must have been asleep standing there. I shouted at him to wake up. But as he jerked to attention the treads of his boots lost their tenuous grip. Lost and dazed, he fell.

He slipped and skidded so far down he was just a speck on the shield’s blinding, silvery face. I didn’t see the loose sharp corners of old panels rip that old suit to ribbons or smash the helmet like an eggshell. But I did hear the bumping and ratting and grunting abruptly end until I only heard a quiet sizzle come through my helmet radio as the poor boy burned like bacon.

Me and every other gobsmacked bastard stared and gawked for only a minute or two before the speakers ordered us to return to our duties. I never finished that panel on my own.

There was never an official explanation on what happened to Henry, though I hear he was part of the cargo on the shuttle home eight hours later. I didn’t feel like leafing through the magazine that evening nor stopping for dinner at the station. I’d save my money for the night at home. I needed the credits to pay my solar bill, giving me just enough power to eat a reheated meal in the lamplight and turn on the television to get my mind off of the blasted day I’d had.

Those god-forsaken protestors don’t know what we go through.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Adventure, Flash Fiction, Sci Fi