It's a long way down…
That was the thought of a bored and disinterested factory worker as he leaned upon the catwalk railing. He probably should have been directing the crane operator, but after nearly ten hours of mentally and physically exhausting work he didn't seem to care. Sweat drenched his face and neck; his gray coveralls clung tightly to his skin. It felt suffocating. The entire factory was suffocating. From the lingering heat to the smell of burning rubber, it all suffocated him. Not to mention the work itself was enough to choke any sane person.
"I don't think anyone who works here is sane," he joked to himself. It was too noisy for anyone to hear his mumble. The crashes, bangs and shouts drowned out any meaningless chatter. The noises acted like a lullaby for his tired head. It wasn't bright enough in the factory to keep him awake. Soot clouded the air, and the only light came from a few small orange glows and the light from the office window. He tilted his head down once more to marvel at the distance and his hard hat fell over his forehead. Slowly, his clear blue eyes slid shut. Before he knew it, he had fallen asleep.
A jolt struck him from the side and his eyes shot back open. His surroundings turned into a whirlwind of color as his body flew towards the grated catwalk floor. The hard hat that was once nested firmly on top of his head disappeared and his skull crashed and bounced onto the grate. Disorientated from the blow, he was barely able to recognize the man who tackled him.
"Andrei?" he questioned.
A second after the name left his lips the entire factory was stilled by the screeching sound of crashing metal. Both men on the catwalk were taken by surprise when the floor that held them up suddenly tipped. Soon, the entire catwalk was completely broken in half.
Gravity came next. Andrei quickly grabbed the railing and held on for dear life. When his coworker started to slide, Andrei extended his hand and tried to catch him. Their arms made fleeting contact as the other began to plummet.
At first, he refused to stick his hand in the rails for fear of breaking his arm, but soon survival instincts took over and he risked the broken arm by lunging it towards the railing. Suddenly his downward movement halted and relief washed over him. Relief lasted only until he felt his bone crack; it was painful, but adrenaline helped him ignore the bulk of it. Panic followed. He watched in horror as his arm continued to twist and crack under the pressure and awkward angle.
Shouts from other workers didn't exactly help calm him down. How far was left until the floor? He refused to look down and tried to remain calm. Think logically, he told himself. His right arm was caught, so obviously this meant his left was free. He tried to move his left arm towards the railing in the hope that he might be able to hold on if his right completely gave. The movement caused his right arm to twitch and a ripple of pain moved up his arm. Instinct had him grab his injured arm. The sudden movement sent his right arm out of the railing and his body falling towards the ground.
There was no time to think. He bombed the ground flat on his back almost the instant he slipped. He cried out at the shock more than the actual pain, but the sound of his body hitting the concrete and his yelp worried his coworkers. The entire incident was only about five seconds.
"Shelton!" a man on the floor yelled.
Shelton – the man who just lived the longest five seconds of his life – lifted his left arm to signal he was still alive. The shattered catwalk and the fallen crane were visible from his spot on the floor. He tried to lift his body but it refused to cooperate. Instead, he opted for rolling over and getting to his knees in order to stand. Without thinking he rolled over onto his right side. The audible creaking of his fracture arm was enough to make anyone sick.
The pain had forced his eyes shut. When he opened them, he was surrounded by tense coworkers. The sweaty faces that suffocated him were painted with worried expressions. One asked, "Hey, Shelton? Are you alright?"
He spotted Petras, the crane operator, who peered over the shoulder of another. It was hard to miss the droopy eyed, skinny young man. Despite the dirt and grime that covered his face, he was still the whitest of the bunch. "That was a mighty long fall," Petras said with a nervous smile.
"It's your fault, dumbass," Andrei barked from behind them. They were surprised to see how quickly he had gotten down. "Get out of the way. Get back to work! Can't you idiots see we have a mess to clean up?" The group scattered and left only Shelton and Petras near the catwalk.
"It's not entirely my fault," Petras whined once Andrei was closer. Andrei grumbled in response as he knelt next to Shelton.
When Andrei moved his arm, Shelton shouted, "Hey, hey! What's the matter with you? That's hurts, you know?!"
"Yes, I do know," Andrei countered. With no hesitation he snapped the broken bone back into place. The shriek and curses that followed were ear shattering. "Don't whine, idiot. It's your own fault for goofing off. You're lucky a broken arm was all you got. How's your back?"
"It's fine," Shelton answered. Andrei offered a hand, and with his uninjured arm Shelton accepted. He was a bit uneven on his feet, as his body was still pumped full of adrenaline. He muttered thanks to Andrei and the older man just nodded in response.
Several minutes later, Shelton found himself seated in the office while his arm was being wrapped. There wasn't time for him to be sent to the hospital, and even then it's not as though the higher ups would appreciate an accident of that caliber being reported. Instead, he got first aid treatment in a tiny office with stained walls and limited furniture. The only thing worthy of a workers time was the factory bulletin board.
It was still pretty hot in the office, although not nearly as bad as the factory floor. His coveralls had been removed which helped cool his body down. The brown locks that rested upon his head were completely drenched. While the pain in his arm and back wasn't pleasant, a shot of painkillers took care of that. Plus, he got to be alone with a cute girl.
"You should go out on a date with me," the not-so-coy Shelton suggested. The girl yanked harshly on his injured arm in response. He cringed and had to bite his tongue.
"You've asked me a hundred times, and I have the same answer for you now," she said.
"Why not?" he asked. With a pat, she finished the makeshift splint. Shelton foolishly went to lift his arm to check his mobility. Pain shot from his shoulder down his back and he yelped again.
"Because your idea of a date is taking me home, which – I'd like to point out – is not a date."
"What's the difference?"
"A whole lot," she said. She gathered the remaining first aid supplies and went to place them back at their rightful place. The case slipped; its contents spilled out over the floor and she cursed mildly as she bent down to pick them up.
Shelton went to assist but was interrupted when the office door swung open. Dressed smartly in a tan suit and polished shoes, the man entirely ignored them at first. It wasn't until after he surveyed the room did he realize that they were the only ones there. The newly arrived man shamelessly and openly ogled the young girl's bottom. Neither Shelton nor the man bothered to help her; perhaps worse yet, Shelton didn't do anything to stop the man from checking out his coworker. She wasn't even aware the man had entered until he clicked the door shut. By that time, she had finished cleaning up the scattered supplies.
She greeted him with a smile. After clearing his throat, he asked, "Is the shop manager here?"
"I'll go get him!" the girl chirped. The supplies were placed back on the wall and she disappeared out the door leading towards the factory floor.
This left Shelton alone with the man. They passed a polite smile between each other but nothing more. Antanas Fedorov was the man's name, and for some reason he pissed Shelton off. The grin of a Cheshire cat was smeared across his face and his eyes twinkled with the sparkle of a possessed man. Many called him "Herr Fedorov" because of his perfect blonde hair and blue eyes coupled with his odd – although barely noticeable – accent. Maybe Shelton was just jealous; Antanas was only three or four years older than him but was making much more money. Perhaps Shelton let his jealousy get in the way, so he misjudged the man in front of him, but something about Antanas's flashy smile told him otherwise.
"I see you were injured," Antanas said to Shelton.
"Yeah, there was a minor accident," he answered.
"Hm. Minor indeed. Is that wrecked crane out there the source of your accident?" asked Antanas. When Shelton didn't answer, he opened his notebook and began to write something down. "That's too bad. Looks like we'll go over budget…"
Antanas was a bureaucrat and main man in charge of most Zimmerman-Li owned factories in the region. In other words: Antanas was his boss, despite the fact he knew nothing about working in a factory. ZL Industries was a collaboration between Hong Kong and New York based investors long before Shelton was born. Most factories for the company were located within the Republic of Eurasia, and young Antanas was in charge of the ones closest to the border near China. The number one reason for outsourcing the factories was the cheap labor. A young man would work for six marks a week in Barnaul, compared to nearly one hundred times that in China or the North American Union. Even if Shelton didn't like Antanas, he would admit that the bureaucrat made sure they got better than six marks a week.
The door that led to the factory floor opened, and instead of the cute girl returning they were met by Andrei. He removed his hard hat and gloves before he greeted Antanas. With a firm handshake, he managed to say, "It's a pleasure you could visit us today, Mr. Fedorov."
"It looks like I picked an interesting day," Antanas said. "I'd like to survey the damage caused by the crane accident before we get to business."
"We're just starting cleanup. To be safe I'd like you to stay away from the wreckage just in case something malfunctions," Andrei warned.
"Nonsense!" laughed Antanas. He moved ahead of Andrei and prepared to head towards the factory floor. "We have fifteen orders for those jets in our factories alone. I need to make sure nothing was damaged!"
"Those jets" referred to whatever the hell it was they were working on – Shelton had no clue and he didn't care. Every month a new order for something came in. Typically it was smaller, like assault vehicles or tanks. Everything was really good quality, otherwise Andrei wouldn't send it out. All products were identical. Individuality was defined after it was shipped out. Shelton didn't know what who ordered them or where they went, but he was fairly confident that both the enemy and allies invested their brains and money in ZL Industries.
"I'm telling you, relationships are a waste of time," the young Petras advised Shelton. The changing room was unusually quiet because most other workers were long gone; both Shelton and Petras had to try and explain the accident to Antanas, which forced them to be close to an hour late. The two of them were packing up their gear into their lockers. Shelton had a heck of a time trying to change out of his sweaty undershirt and into a more respectable, clean t-shirt. As for Petras, he was being his usual self and repeatedly placed his shirt on backwards or inside out until he finally got it right.
Andrei had just walked in. His coveralls were being shed as he asked, "What's a waste of time?"
Petras hesitated for a second. The brief silence made Andrei halt and stare. Petras felt uneasy with two sets of eyes on him. Normally, repeating the line wouldn't be so difficult, but Andrei was a different case. Divorced and with two kids, Andrei never talked openly about relationships with the two younger workers. Petras assumed it was a sore spot. Yet the piercing eyes of Andrei and Shelton were perhaps even more awkward than offending one of them. Eventually, Petras repeated the line, "Relationships!"
Andrei continued changing and asked, "Did Shelton get dumped again?"
"Sunday," Shelton answered.
"Liza turned him down again, too," Petras added, referring to the woman who taped up Shelton's arm. Petras barely avoided an annoyed elbow from Shelton. "I'm just saying that relationships are useless," Petras continued. "The only good thing would be guaranteed sex."
"Making love and having sex are two completely different things," Andrei said from his locker.
"Adults always say things like that," muttered Petras.
Andrei's face fell in confusion. "'Adults?' You're twenty yourself."
"Still younger than you! Besides, it's not like I asked to turn twenty!"
"I didn't ask to turn thirty, either," complained Andrei. Neither Petras nor Shelton knew Andrei's real age. Whenever the question came up, he always said "a little over thirty." It was hard to tell how old he really was, because he had aged well despite his job. When his face was cleaned from the dirt and freshly shaven he could have been mistaken for being Shelton's peer – which would place him at twenty-seven. He had what many coworkers lamented as being "Errol Flynn's face," a youthful, symmetrical canvas with a perfectly straight nose and a handsome smile.
"I didn't even ask to be here," mumbled Shelton. He turned to the young Petras and said, "You owe me a drink for today."
"Huh? All the same to you!"
Several hours later, Shelton had to deal with a slightly tipsy Petras. Wasn't it Shelton's idea to go drinking in the first place? He should be helping a drunk me, not the other way around, Shelton thought to himself. Fortunately, most in town were already in bed, as they probably had to be up at an ungodly hour for work. Sleep sounded nice to the exhausted Shelton. His schedule was too hectic; he worked ten hours a day, six days a week, and then still had six hours of school three days a week. Sunday was his only day of rest.
Nighttime brought complete darkness over their working town. Street lamps were not found very frequently and it was considered unsafe to stroll around town late on your own. It was a dirty place for lack of a better word, with trash and rats littered about in alleyways and sidewalks. A peek down the wrong alley at night would show for you the kind of people that roamed under the shuddering street lamps – drug dealers, prostitutes and drunks.
Despite having a bit to drink, Petras was straight in his speech and only needed a little assistance in keeping balance. They passed by a police officer on his beat. The officer eyed the two suspiciously as they passed. Once he was out of ear shot, Petras shouted, "Fascist pig!"
"Hey…" Shelton whispered, worried the cop heard. The police officer gazed over his shoulder but just kept walking.
"That's what he is! That's what this whole place is!" Petras yelled. He lost his balance in his anger and Shelton quickly tried to stabilize him. "I was thinkin' about joinin' the army. I could save a lot of money. You know, I got people to take care of."
"If you hate this place, why would you fight for it?" Shelton asked.
Petras waved a hand and said, "I don't care. I just want the money." They reached the intersection where they normally parted. Shelton tried to follow Petras but the young man held up a hand to stop him. "Relax, man. I've been down here a hundred times. See ya!" Shelton watched Petras take a jogging start towards his home. He tripped and stumbled once or twice, but Shelton eventually gave up watching and went about his own way.
The housing district was a boring place. Everything looked exactly the same except the numbers on the houses. They were rectangular in shape but rather tiny. For single workers such as Shelton, the layout consisted of a small kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom. Those that had a family got larger homes, sometimes even with small yards.
His stomach grumbled and Shelton wondered if there was time to get something to eat. He took a detour towards the ration distribution center. From about two blocks down he could still see the dim glow of the lights from the small building. Casually he strolled up to see old man Sonkin putting away the remaining rations. Bonaparte, the large Akita purebred which guarded the center, barked loudly when Shelton approached. When he got close enough Bonaparte rushed to greet the familiar person.
"Ah, is that you, Shelton?" Sonkin asked. "You're a bit late… like usual." Shelton dug into his pocket for the required voucher. ZL Industries owned the entire town; in many ways, the owned the entire country. Politics and bureaucracy had merged so well for Eurasia that the two were indistinguishable. This was nice in some ways. For example, they received free or incredibly cheap housing, and with government vouchers they could receive free food. At the same time, many businesses were kicked out of the factory town because they wanted complete control over what was eaten or purchased. Most people didn't care or didn't even notice, because food and shelter was good enough for them.
"Sorry old man," Shelton said with a laugh. "Do you have anything left?"
"Sure, sure, just hold on a second," the old man grumbled as he pulled out a ration box. "Here you go." Shelton went to hand Sonkin his voucher but he waved him off. "Take it. Just don't tell anyone."
"So," Sonkin started as Shelton stuck the voucher back into his pocket. Sonkin had to hold the box due to Shelton's injury. Once Shelton finally grabbed the box, Sonkin continued, "What did you do to your arm?"
"Fell asleep on the job," Shelton answered matter-of-factly.
Sonkin snorted, "You're overworking yourself."
"It's been the worst week of my life," Shelton complained. "I don't think it could get any worse. And it's only Tuesday!"