The Dock Worker (Flash Fiction)

“I think I got everyone.” Abra checks the list again, each genetic family carefully contained in twenty vials per box. “Twenty boxes of Earth-native embryos — you’re all set.” She pats the top box twice and tries to smile at the dock worker’s face as it scans the code on each box, even though she would rather examine its long, multi-knuckled fingers. The debriefing she got at the shuttle port made it clear: don’t stare, and don’t ask stupid questions. Any action that might constitute a risk to the planet will be considered treason, and punished accordingly.

The dock worker begins to speak, before it seems to remember that it speaks outside her range of hearing. It removes the voice box from its belt. As it holds down a button, it speaks again: “This is accurate.” It waves over another worker with a cart, and a group of aliens appears from seemingly nowhere to start loading up the boxes. “The consortium thanks you for your contribution.”

“What do you need so many embryos for?” Abra asks before her brain catches up with her mouth and she realizes that it might constitute a stupid question, or a risk to Operation Olive Branch. The dock worker tilts its head at her, and it takes her a moment to understand the twist of its serpentine mouth as a smile. She swallows and barrels on — her platoon was going to have a hundred questions when she returned, so she may as well go for broke. “Some of the guys think that it might be, um, planet seeding? Because that would make a lot of sense. The scientists back home are going wild with curiosity.”

With one hand on the button of the voice box and the other settled on her shoulder, guiding her back to the shuttle, the dock worker speaks. “Rations.”

“Huh?” Its gait is faster than hers — its legs are longer, after all — and she stumbles to keep up as it presses her into forward motion. “We didn’t pack any food.”

At the door to the shuttle the dock worker says, “Our facilities are designed for optimum ration growth. Our delivery will arrive on Earth within the hour. Thank you for your contribution. Safe travels, Sergeant.” It opens the door to the shuttle. Abra stumbles; the door slides down behind her before she can ask another question.

Stick to protocol. Abra makes her way to the pilot’s chair and straps in. It doesn’t take long to get back to the planet-side dock from here, but she suddenly can’t stand to stay another minute. Once she the shuttle disengages from the orbital dock, she makes the call to her supervisor.

“Sergeant, was the mission successful?”

“Yes, sir.” She licks her lips and clears her throat. “Why does the consortium require 400 embryos?” The line is silent, and Abra stares at the looming planet on the nearby screen. Billions of people waiting to hear that the trade went successfully, that the alien supplies and technology are on the way. It’s going to be nothing but good news on the television channels tonight. “Sir?”

“We consider that a non-issue,” her superior says carefully. “In all the potential first-contact scenarios, our priority was always the lives of Earth citizens. Compared to our fears…” Silence again. “Sergeant, trust me. You did good work today. This is better than anything.”

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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