Brenton, New Oklahoma had a reputation of being one of the worst cities in the United Colony. While many others had either left the settlement for greener pastures, Richard Ferguson stubbornly stayed behind. He sat idly on his living room couch, his body slightly tilted in an angle that would arguably give most people back problems. He knew that living in Brenton wasn’t the greatest idea he had ever come up with, but given his personal and financial circumstances he had no other choice.
As he flipped through the few channels on his government-issued television set, he continued his dangerous posture, occasionally sitting upright to reach his glass of water sitting on the coffee table in front of him. The static from switching channels broke the looming silence that once hung over his balding head. He felt that the noise was comforting. It was like a warm arm reaching over his broad shoulders, caressing and pulling him closer to another human being. It wasn’t always like this for Richard. It wasn’t always the daily routine of coming home from work to an empty apartment and spending the rest of the evening lounging on the decade-old pleather couch, watching another rerun of 2090’s-era sitcoms while shoveling microwaved dinners into his mouth. For a time, there was a warm arm reaching over his shoulders, pulling him closer to another human being.
It has been nearly six months since his divorce was finalized in a cold, concrete office filled with both his lawyer and Jain’s. When he finished dotting the “i” it was already time for dinner. There was a time when he would look forward to leaving the monotonous workplace for home where she was waiting for him with a freshly made dinner on the kitchen table, though the margin of improvement between the food he had then and what he had now was not that large. But in his mind it wasn’t the food that was the bringing him home, it was Jain. They had met on a transport ship filled with hundreds of other colonizers bound for the then-exciting United Colony. He sat in Division 4, Row 29, Seat C, while she sat in Division 4, Row 29, Seat D. Being in close proximity with each other for nearly fifteen hours of travel time, Richard and Jain felt compelled to engage in small talk. At the time, they didn’t realize the implications their small talk would be as the catalyst for their eventual attraction.
He had initially signed up for the United Colonial Corps as a means to escape his nagging parents, who tended to throw around the words “failure” and “expectations” as often as a four year-old threw chewed-up food at the ceiling. Though the idea of traveling millions of kilometers across space gave him constant nausea and anxiety leading up to his departure, the thought of having to stay on Earth and listening to his parents’ continuous prodding was more than enough motivation to push forward with his plan. He wasn’t content with living in his parent’s basement for the rest of his 20’s, and although the rent and food were free, the hidden cost of having to be conscious around them took a toll on his sanity.
Jain, however, had been part of a more honorable venture in his mind. She was a member of the United Earth Peace Corp, on an administrative outing to Transton, New Oklahoma as liaison for the organization’s branch stationed there. During the travel she often remarked about her unwillingness to accept her supervisor’s orders, slipping in phrases like “lazy asshole” and “fat bastard” underneath the praise she had for the organization as a whole. The United Earth Peace Corp had a reputation for being a “driving force for interstellar development” and, being only vaguely acquainted with the organization by advertisements on television, Richard had no other choice but to treat Jain’s opinion as fact. Though officially a government agency, the Corps had near-autonomous operating and financing power. It was an organization that not only provided financial relief to struggling townships and colonies, but also administrative support and advisement to government agencies not working to its “fullest” potential. Again, Richard could only listen and nod while admiring her dedication to her job, as well as her beautiful green eyes and long, black hair.
Jain Howser became Jain Ferguson after their marriage a year after landing in the New Oklahoma Interstellar Spaceport. They spent their honeymoon finding a suitable and affordable place to live, where they would eventually settle on the then-growing Brenton. The town then had been ranked one of the fastest growing cities in the entire colony, so there had been plenty of job opportunities for Richard to make a decent living. The town was also only a fifteen minute train ride to the Corps’s office in Transton. Though commuting by train put some strain on living expenditures, with the money Richard and Jain pulled in every month, the cost was worth the living arrangements. The apartments they found was one of the few left unaffected by the rising rent prices, so after catching wind of the place they jumped at the opportunity. For the first year and a half after their marriage, Richard felt like he was a king of the new world. But like every monarchy in Earth’s history, it would not last.
Signs of his relationship with Jain breaking down came from news of a Earth-wide recession, taking down with it the credit scores and borrowing power of many business owners in the United Colony. While the United Earth Peace Corps wasn’t hit as hard as other government agencies, there were still looming budget cuts and austerity measures to be made. Jain first got wind of the budget cuts to the Transton division a few weeks after Richard and his fellow workmates volunteered to take a percentage wage cut in order to save the company he had been working at since he arrived. Coupled with the austerity measures to the Corps’ Transton branch, the two were barely making enough money to support their once-booming lifestyle. Before each of them knew it, there was arguing, crying, and the occasional throwing of dinnerware at each other. Jain had suggested to move out of Brenton and back to Earth where she could find a higher-paying position at the New York Branch. Richard, having come from New York two and a half years earlier to escape his parents’ grasp, flatly refused, knowing the horrors their presence would eventually bring. The arguing continued for a few months until Jain couldn’t take it anymore. On a Monday evening, Richard and Jain signed the final divorce papers and Jain left for Earth without saying a word.
The land in Brenton had once been usable for vast agricultural industries, but years of mismanagement and miscommunication between the government and its working farmers during the colony-wide recession left the once-fertile landscape arid and undesirable by both flora and fauna alike. What had stayed in Brenton were the copious amounts of heavy industry, largely dominated by the homeworld conglomerate American Affiliates. While the corporation essentially brought Brenton back from near-financial ruin, the aftermath of the bailout left many citizens wondering if the victory had been a Pyrrhic one. Sure, the unemployment numbers went down from a staggering 15% to a mere 1.2% (of which were mostly illegal immigrants and the homeless), but the size of the income inequality gap rivaled the size of The Grand Canyon. It was comically akin to the stereotypical social justice propaganda piece: the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The middle class had all but disappeared from Brenton, but that only left a smile on American Affiliates’ chief executive’s faces as that meant more and more cheap labor could be harnessed and greater profit margins could be earned. To many in the remaining working class, at least there was money to be made and food to be placed on the table.
Richard continued skipping through the airwaves, brushing off the ads for buying government bonds or the calls for continuous civil service. He reached for his glass and took a sip, noting the odd aftertaste on the base of his tongue. He took a glance at the folded-down picture frame of what was once his happy self next to his loving wife. He never understood why he would torment himself with the constant reminder being in such close proximity with the tools critical to his daily routine. He pulled his gaze away from the plastic picture frame and placed it back on the television set, which, ironically enough, displayed advertisements for escorts catered towards men in his specific age group and his specific marital circumstances. The channels had always been a mechanism for the local government in promoting civil duties and responsibilities, but very rarely did anyone respond to the constant stimuli. The recession left Brenton’s population synonymous with “apathy” and “lethargy”, and by being so closely tied together with those words outsiders tended to avoid any sort of affiliation. In fact, Richard was once at the local library, looking up these words as they tended to be thrown around the newscasters’ desk every morning. He looked at the example image next to the definition and he thought it vaguely resembled himself.
Richard rubbed his bloodshot-eyes with the side of his finger as he continued physically punishing the remote control with his other hand, feeling like a sadistic king in his own, delusional kingdom, punishing his court jester. He held a slight grin on his unshaven face as more advertisements for prostitutes and sleeping aids drifted from one side to the next. Maybe I should work in pharmaceuticals.
He had been working as a supervisor for the local mining company that had yet to be bought out by American Affiliates a few blocks from his apartment. While the hours had become fanatically long and the working conditions bordering OSHA-lawsuit standards, the work paid a relatively decent wage and was more than enough to live comfortably. Since the divorce had left him with 50% of his past wealth intact, every penny became a necessity. He had managed to save enough money for a new pair of leather work boots and a safety helmet to replace his older one, which, by now, had fractured into five pieces and barely resembled a helmet at all. The leftover money after taxes, rent, and the questionable (though no one could really question it) “miscellaneous work fees” kept his fridge filled with enough rations to last him until the next off-world shipment arrived. In his mind it wasn’t glamorous eating bricks of processed protein and carbohydrates – which tasted like a combination of cardboard and burnt steak – but seeing as most people had to eat literal cardboard and scrapings from local dumpsters on Sunday afternoons, he had little reason to complain.
His alarm clock had a tendency to go off at the most inopportune times and this time was no different. Richard had set his alarm for a reason: he had work today. Even though it was a Saturday evening, his boss had instructed him as he was leaving Friday night to come in for an emergency meeting. The look on his boss’ face while he was spewing the news from his crumb-filled mouth was a combination of disaster and frustration. Saturday was going to be a hectic day. He just wished his boss had told him what the fuss was about rather than leaving him guessing for nearly 24 hours.
Richard grumbled at the sound of the alarm buzzing behind him and reached over to silence it, breaking his posture that would have inspired Michelangelo into making another statue. He walked into his tiny bedroom, got dressed with his usual white dress shirt, red necktie, dirt-stained jeans, and semi-polished leather boots, and left his apartment, carefully locking his four locks with his key-card and double-checking the doorknob for any kind of tampering that was far too common where he lived. He walked down the staircase from the fifth floor with less enthusiasm as usual, entirely content with not taking the elevator since it had a tendency to smell like burnt cheese. With every step made a creaking sound from the retiring wood panels. While the government had set up retirement funds for the elderly for comfortable final years, the wood planks had no such luxury.
As he stepped out of the main entrance his nostrils were greeted with a scene familiar to sewer rats and people afflicted with dysentery. Since the surrounding farmland had been used up past reasonable boundaries, all that was left was dirt, dust, and the occasional passing boulder. The atmosphere in the colony didn’t have a word for “stationary” and so the winds and gusts typically lifted the dead land up from the ground, bringing with it broken windows and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages. The economic downturn meant little city services were available to maintain a clean portrayal of city life, so flying trash became so prevalent they were often mistaken for a new species of flying mammals. Richard pinched his nose as he had done hundreds of times before and squinted his eyes enough to make out which direction he had to walk towards. Although his finances allowed him to purchase the occasional replacement goods, it left very little towards purchasing new goods such as imported gas masks and other safety-related items. It would be nice to wear a gas mask, but the money simply wasn’t there for him. But he had done this trek hundreds of times before, so he was used to it – at least, that’s what he told himself. Miraculously he didn’t get a warm greeting from the typical flying shrubbery. Things are looking up for me today.
Richard stopped in front of a sign that read: Brenton Mining. The name of his workplace bled a bright, neon-colored lighting that, if it weren’t for the squinting, would render him and many others temporarily blind. He walked up the illuminated steel staircase and placed his identification card on top of the card reader by the door. He tried this gesture a few times before the reader beeped and the door’s locks became unaligned, allowing the door to be swung open. He pulled the door ajar, stepped inside the decontamination chamber, and pulled the door back into its closed position, slightly jumping at the sound of the cylindrical locking mechanisms returning back into place. He turned his body clockwise. The large, glass window in front of him lit up, revealing a security guard wearing a blue dress shirt and a black necktie.
“Scared me there for a second, Rich. I thought I was gonna get shot by a robber,” the security guard said through the intercom. The sudden usage of the announcement system caused a loud crackle, making Richard jump yet again as he turned toward the glass pane.
“You know just as much as anybody that there ain’t no robbers in these parts. Hell, there ain’t even nothing worthy to steal,” Richard said, “And dare I say, Blake, you ain’t even worth killin’!”
“I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or an insult,” Blake said, stifling his laughter as he worked the control panel.
“It’s all a matter of interpretation, Blake. All a matter of interpretation,”
The walls around Richard began to rumble as opaque decontaminant began pouring out of the nozzles embedded in the wall behind him.
“Man, you’re some sort of philosophizer or somethin’, Rich. What the hell are you still doin’ in this shit hole? You should be out there in the inner-worlds writing a book about this shit.”
The nozzles stopped blasting out the opaque gasses and the wall underneath the glass panel in front of Richard began to suck the leftover gasses out from under him.
“I would if I could, Blake. I would if I could,” Richard said with a small grin on his face, “that being said, are you volunteering to donate to my ‘get the fuck out of here’ fund? Cause I’m currently looking for donors.”
The door on his left opened up, revealing a steel corridor lit up by a string of overhead lights.
Blake laughed sarcastically. “You’re a funny guy, Rich. You’re a funny guy.”
Richard had been looking at Blake’s face for a quite a while now, but the expression had been one he had not seen before. Rather than a smile and indifferent expression populating his face, Blake held a slight frown and his eyebrows spoke a slight melancholy. Was there something going on here?
Richard waved Blake off as he stepped out of the chamber and followed his usual path towards the meeting room, his head filled with thoughts about what he just saw. He arrived in front of the locked meeting room door and he pulled out his key card. Before he could make the grandiose swiping motion he had been trained to do since the beginning of his employment three years ago, the door slid open, revealing a middle-aged man wearing a pinstriped dress shirt and a red necktie.
“You’re late,” the man said, “get in and sit down.”
Richard did what he was told and walked into the room. He had been accustomed to being one of only three people in the room at any given time – usually him, his boss, and Blake for security reasons – but this time he was met with the piercing stares of two gentlemen in seemingly-expensive suits and ties. Richard pulled the man over to the side of the room.
“What the hell is going on here, Ozzy? You didn’t tell me this was gonna be some kinda press conference,” Richard whispered into the man’s ear.
Osman Dias had been the owner of Brenton Mining since the colony’s founding and had always been a prideful man. He frequently reminded the employees of his charitable deeds and work ethic, much to the dismay of the less-skilled workers who were often the victims of his lectures. He typically wore a dress shirt, though the sleeves were often rolled up to his elbows in a display of the working man. His face spelled either determination or unchecked pride – depending on the interpretation. His hair – or what was left of it – often broke the rule of never using comb-overs to cover up genetic disparities, but it certainly gave a more grandfather aura for the younger employees.
But this time was different. Osman’s sleeves were no longer rolled up in an orderly fashion – rather, it wasn’t rolled up at all. The cuffs were unlinked and the flailing nature was beginning to come to light. His face made it look like he hadn’t slept for days and his eyes continually made efforts to dodge any kind of direct eye-contact. His hair was no longer a comb-over, but a complete, utter mess with hair dangling off one side of his head rather than covering the top. This made his old hairstyle look decent.
“It’s bad, Richard. It’s really bad,” Osman said.
“Ah hem,” the man in the black suit said interrupting the conversation between the two, “are we ready?”
Osman made a slight jump and wrapped his arms around Richard’s shoulders, almost shoving him into the chair. He rifled his fingers through his hair trying to put meaning back into it.
“Yeah, we’re ready,” Osman said.
“Good. Let’s get this acquisition underway, shall we?” the man in the black suit said.
“As you can see from these financials,” a man in a navy suit said as he passed binders filled with charts around the table, “this company’s not in great shape. Now, we’ve spoken to the regulatory committees back on Earth and they are in agreement for this pending acquisition. If you all turn to page two-”
“Wait,” Richard interrupted, “Let’s back up for a second here. What the hell is going on? Who are you people, anyway?”
The man in the navy suit sighed as he pinched his nose bridge.
“You didn’t tell him, Osman?”
“I-I was going to tell him on Monday, but you people,” Osman stammered, pointing his fingers at the two men in suits, “came barging in here Friday morning and spewing all this stuff at me. How was I supposed to-”
“All right that’s enough. I guess we can explain it to him then,” the man in the black suit said, fixing his tie.
“This company’s going bankrupt,” the man in the black suit said to Richard, “and fast.”
“We have had an eye on this mining business for quite a while now, but Mr. Dias here had always refused to sell us his company, even though he knew of its impending collapse and never told anyone about it.”
“T-that’s not true! I’ve always made reports about our fiscal standings-”
“And they were never sent out to anyone, were they Mr. Dias?”
The air became stiff as ice. “Well, it’s no surprise to me that you, Mr. Lowry – who is essentially his right-hand man at this point – would be left in the dark about this,” the man in the black suit said to Richard, “Mr. Dias always had a history of neglecting important manners like this. I’m not surprised he hasn’t told anyone else of this either.”
Richard turned to Osman, who was obviously devastated at his words.
True, Osman had a tendency to not order the correct replacement parts on time or hiring handymen to fix some parts of the mineshaft, but then again, those things weren’t incredibly critical. Everyone makes mistakes, right?
“As to who we are,” the man in the navy suit interjected, “we’re from American Affiliates. And we’re looking to save this sinking ship from reaching the bottom of the ocean. We’re going to buy it off Mr. Dias for a reasonable price and we’re going to see to it that this business succeeds.” The man in the navy suit began tapping his ivory pen on the cover of the binder that had been passed around. He stared straight at Richard and Osman with an unrelenting gaze.
“You guys are fucking liars, I tell you. ‘Save’? Don’t give me that shit. I’ve read the news. You little fuckers buy up all the damn work in this town and then give shit-all back to the community. Once you guys are done here, you just fucking leave for some other business to cannibalize. All you guys care about is profit. And at the expense of, what, this town crumbling further and further down the shit-hole?” Osman said.
The man in the navy suit slouched forward, unperturbed by Osman’s rant.
“Mr. Dias, I don’t particularly care about your political views or your opinions on how American Affiliates is run. In fact, I don’t really care about your opinions at all,” he said, “All I know is that you are on a downward slope towards crashing into a forest of coniferous trees and you have no way of stopping. The avalanche you’ve been ignoring for several years now has finally caught up to you and you’re only moments away from being sent to your icy death.”
The man in the black suit placed his hand on the shoulder of his already-impatient compatriot, silently signaling him to pull back from completing the crushing hyperbole.
“We just want to know: Are you going to sell?” the man in the black suit asked.
“I…” Osman said, “I-I don’t know. Do I have a choice?” Osman turned to look at Richard, tears swelling up at the base of his eyes.
I have to admit, the charts don’t lie. These are pretty fancy charts and they have citations and everything for all the data points. Jesus, did we really work at an operating loss for the last three fiscal quarters? And these IRA numbers. God, I won’t have a pension if this doesn’t go through.
Richard looked up and saw Osman staring at him with his watery eyes.
God dammit, Ozzy. What the hell have you gotten yourself into?
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Dias. Judging from the numbers I would have to say you only have a few weeks left of solvency before the company goes bankrupt. And with the current bankruptcy laws in place, it wouldn’t be a pleasant declaration,” the man in the navy suit said.
“Don’t think of it as losing your business,” the man in the black suit said, “think of it like saving your employees from financial ruin. I know how much you care about your them, and if it weren’t for them your business would have toppled over like the other ones out there have.”
That’s true. I remember we had all pledged to cut our wages a few percent right as the bust cycle rolled in. Truth be told, we did it because looking for another job was a death sentence. We figured, if keeping this place afloat for an extra year or two meant cutting pay a few dollars a week, we could use the extra time to save up money and find better work outside of Brenton. But we didn’t let that part reach the ears of Ozzy. I’m sure he would have been devastated.
“All you have to do is sign the papers, Osman,” the man in the navy suit said as he pushed a stack of papers with an ivory pen on top towards the sobbing small business owner, “then you could save these people. And yourself, too, from the hardships outside.”
To Richard and Osman, it felt as if time had stopped. Silence loomed over the heads of the teary Osman and the concerned Richard, and the mesmerizing gaze of the two men in suits refused to give. The air stood still even though the ventilation system continued to sound like it was still functioning properly. Osman just sat in his chair, staring at the stack of papers in front of him. At the sound of the small hand moving to another tick on the clock on the wall, Osman picked up the ivory pen with his right hand and signed his name on the documents lying before him, whispering under his breath, “I’m sorry,” over and over again. Richard sat next to him, staring at his hand as it was scribbling, thinking of how the scene looked like a navy general signing documents of surrender.
“On behalf of American Affiliates, we appreciate you taking the time to meet with us,” the man in the black suit said, breaking the silence, “and we empathize with the guilt and burden you must be feeling right now.” Osman had stopped sobbing for quite some time now, seemingly content with just staring at his hand holding the ivory pen. The man in the navy suit rose from his chair and walked behind Osman.
“You did the right thing,” the man said, patting Osman on the back with his left hand and taking his pen with his right, “We’ll take it from here.”
The two men in suits gathered up their documents and things they had passed around and left the meeting room. Richard sat in his chair, arms dangling off the side, as Osman continued his infinite gaze at the table. The clock managed to make another clicking sound, this time the long hand switching over to the next tick.