"Safety, Victor. I'm talking about the hazards that your father and his team are subjected to every single day in the maintenance bay."
"What does that have to do with me?"
She gave him a stern look. "I'm not an idiot, Victor. I know that your job is to wrest every last penny of profit for your corporate masters by adjusting how the systems work. Well, a big part of that savings comes from eliminating the so-called 'extra capacity' in the equipment and procedures. But it's not extra capacity they're eliminating; it's the margin of safety." She had barely stopped to catch her breath when she started to cry.
Victor swallowed hard and tried to defuse the situation. "But Mom," he said, "we've got solid data to back up those cuts. That extra--."
"Your father's job used to be safe," she snapped, cutting him off. "The machines were fixed when they broke. He was issued a fresh hazard suit any time one got damaged. But all that changed. The machines are lashed up with baling wire, and they refuse to get new hazard suits. I don't know what he's been exposed to, but it's something in that environment that's done this to him. That's why he has cuts that don't heal properly, why he bruises so easily, and why he itches so horribly."
He reflexively followed her gaze when she turned to look at Rolff, but the sight of his father's anguished expression sent him fleeing for the door without another word. Victor felt trapped between his obligations to work and the demands of his family. Once he was back outside, he pulled out his phone and ordered up an autoCab to track him down on foot, the extra cost be damned. He needed to do something with the bottled-up anger, and it might as well be stomping aimlessly down the city streets until his ride found him.
All Victor could think of on the way home was what his mother had said about conditions in the maintenance bay. Broken equipment? No enviro suits? Was that really what his analyses were being used for?
By the time he fell asleep, his dark thoughts had sprouted questions about the integrity of the things that were supposedly being fixed in the maintenance bay. It was a fitful sleep, and in dream he found himself shackled to the bottom of the Thomas J. O'Brien lock on the Calumet River. One moment, the lock was dry and the sky above was blue; the next, it was a mass of steel-grey clouds that were rent by the simultaneous flash and crash of a nearby lightning strike, unleashing a downpour. Looking around, he realized that the lock's massive gates were both sealed shut. And still the water kept rising. Fearing the worst, he screamed for help, but his own hollow echoes were the only answer. When the anguished echoes died, all that remained was the thunderous roar of the rain. He was alone, about to drown, and nobody knew he was there. Looking down, he realized he was holding a rusty spoon, so he tried digging a hole in the water. The hopelessness of the situation was so overwhelming that when he was finally shocked awake in the pre-dawn glow by an emergency alert he was so relieved he didn't even notice that he was drenched with sweat.
Still shaken, he accepted the call without suppressing the vid. "Yeah?"
The voice was unfamiliar, so he peered at the screen for a few seconds before realizing whose face it was: Baris Fletcher, the Port Administrator. Fletcher? Where was his direct manager? Pushing that mystery aside for the moment, he straightened as best he could and asked what the situation was.
"We need you down here now, Schandrul. Our systems have been compromised, and we need to get things back under control."
"Yes, sir. Immediately. I'll be right there." He was about to switch off when he changed his mind, and asked, "Where's Nat?"
"Gone. We'll have to make do with out her. Now get your butt in gear."
One of the perks of working for the Port of Chicago was unlimited use of the city's transit system. And although that saved Victor a lot of money, not owning a private car did mean that he had to shell out for the odd autoCab ride, like the one last night. But the trip to work was dead simple, or at least it usually was. At this hour, the light rail stop should have been deserted, but instead, there was a mob of restless people milling about, so he asked one of them, a woman in hotel livery, what was going on.
"I'm going to catch hell for being late," she told him. "There was already a crowd here when I arrived. I figure there hasn't been a train through in nearly an hour, but I'd rather believe it's just some local system failure than what the rumors have been saying."