Homeworld is written by Harry Harrison who is also the author of Deathworld, Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as Soylent Green), the popular Stainless Steel Rat books, and many other famous works of SF. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 02, 2012
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Excerpt from Homeworld by Harry Harrison
"It's a monstrosity, a bastard combination of antique piping, worn valves--and modern electronic technology. The whole thing should be blown up and built over from scratch."
"Not that bad, your honor, I think, not really that bad." Radcliffe rubbed his reddened nose with the back of his hand, looked up guiltily when he saw it streaked and wet. The tall engineer beside him had not noticed; Radcliffe wiped it surreptitiously on his trouser leg. "It works, we produce a fine spirit ..."
"It works--but just barely." Jan Kulozik was tired and there was a sharp edge to his voice. "All of the packing glands should be replaced at once or it will blow itself up without any help from me. Look at those leaks, puddles of the stuff."
"I'll have it cleaned up at once, your honor."
"That's not what I mean. Stop the leaks in the first place. Do something constructive, man. That's an order."
"As you say, so shall it be done."
Radcliffe lowered his head obediently, trembling. Jan looked down on the man's balding head, the dusting of dandruff on the fringe of oily hair, and could feel only disgust. These people never learned. They could not think for themselves and even when orderedto do the correct thing made a mess of it half of the time. This manager was about as efficient as the collection of ancient fractioning columns, fermenting vats, and rusty pipes that made up this vegetable-fuel plant. It seemed a waste of time to install the automation controls.
Cold winter light from the tall windows barely outlined the dark mechanical shapes inside the building; spotlights made pools of yellow across the floor. One of the workmen shuffled into view, paused, and groped through his pockets. The motion caught Jan's eye.
"That man--stop!" he shouted.
The command was sudden, startling. The workman had not known the engineer was there. He dropped the match--even before he had lit the joint--and it fell into the pool of liquid at his feet. Sudden blue flame leaped high.
Jan shouldered the man aside roughly as he jumped for the fire extinguisher, tearing it from the bracket, pounding the release as he ran. The workman was stamping wildly at the pool of burning alcohol which only served to spread the flame.
Foam coughed out of the extinguisher's mouth and Jan directed it down, around. The fire was out in a moment, but the workman's trousers were smoldering. Jan whipped the foam across the man's legs and then, in a fit of anger, up his legs, chest, splashing and coating his face with a white blanket.
"You're an absolute fool, a total fool!"
Jan turned off the valve and threw, the extinguisher down. The workman was gasping and wiping his eyes; Jan looked on coldly.
"You know smoking is forbidden in here. You must have been told often enough. And you're standing right under a no smoking sign."
"I ... I don't read so well, your honor." He choked and spat out the bitter liquid.
"Not so well, or probably not at all. You're fired, get out of here."
"No, please, your honor, don't say that," the man wailed, the pain in his eyes forgotten, his mouth a gaping O of despair. "I've worked hard--my family--the dole for years ..."
"The dole for life," Jan said coldly, the anger drained away as he looked at the man before him, on his knees in the foam. "Just be happy that I'm not preferring sabotage charges."
The situation was almost impossible. Jan stamped away, unaware of the staring eyes of the manager and the silent workmen. Just impossible. But better in the control room. Much better. He could almost relax, smile, as he looked at the shining order of the system he had installed. Cable conduits snaked in from all sides, merging and joining together at the control unit. He pressed the keys on the combination lock in sequence and the cover swung open. Silent, smooth, and perfect. The microcomputer in the heart of the machine ran everything with infinite precision. The terminal hung in its holster from his belt. He unclipped . it and plugged it into the computer, tapped out a message on the keys. The screen lit up in instant response. No problems, not here. Though of course that wasn't the case elsewhere in the plant. When he asked for a general condition report the lines of readout went marching by.
VALVE UNIT 376--L--9 LEAKING VALVE UNIT 389--P--6 IN NEED OF REPLACEMENT VALVE UNIT 429--P--8 LEAKING
It was all thoroughly depressing and he cleared the screen with a quick command. Behind him Radcliffe'svoice spoke quietly, respectfully from the open door.
"Please excuse me, Engineer Kulozik, but it is about Simmons, the man you fired. He's a good worker."
"I don't think he's very good." The anger was drained now and Jan wanted to be reasonable about this. But firm. "There will be plenty of people queuing up for his job. Any one of them will do it as well--or better."
"He studied for years, your honor. Years. To get off the dole. That shows something."
"Lighting that match showed even more. I'm sorry. I'm not a cruel man. But I'm thinking of you and the others here. What would you do if he burned down your jobs. You're management, Radcliffe, and that's the way you must think. It may be hard, and look wrong from the outside, but it is the only thing to do. You agree, don't you?"
There was a slight hesitation, but the answer came.
"Of course. You're right. I'm sorry I bothered you. I'll get him out of here now. We can't have his kind around."
"That's the way to do it."
A soft buzz and a flashing red light from the control unit drew Jan's attention; Radcliffe hesitated in the doorway. The computer had found something wrong and wanted Jan to know about it, displaying the information.
VALVE UNIT 928--R--9 IS NOW INOPERATIVE IN PERMANENTLY OPEN CONDITION. IT HAS BEEN ISOLATED FOR REPLACEMENT.
"928-R. Sounds familiar." Jan tapped the information into his personal computer and nodded. "Ithought so. That thing was supposed to have been replaced last week. Was the job completed?"
"I'll have to check the records." Radcliffe was pale.
"Don't bother. We both know it wasn't done. So get out of here and get a valve and we will do the job now."
Jan himself detached the motor drive unit, using a power wrench on the recalcitrant lugnuts. They were heavy with rust. Typical. It had apparently been too much effort to put some oil on them before they had been tightened. He stood aside and watched closely while the sweating proles struggled to get the old valve off, splashing through the runnels of liquid that ran from the pipe end. When the new unit had been fitted and tightened into place under his attentive eye--no second-rate job this time--he bolted on the motor drive. The work was done efficiently without any extra chatter and the workmen picked up their tools and left as soon as it was finished. Jan went back to control to open the blocked section and get the plant functioning again. Once more he had the condition report scroll by, then had a hard copy made. When it had emerged from the printer he dropped into a chair to go through it carefully, ticking off the items that seemed to need the most urgent attention. He was a tall, almost gangling man, in his late twenties. Women thought him good looking--a number had told him so--but he did not think it particularly important. They were nice but they had their place. Which was immediately after microcircuit engineering. Whenever he read he frowned so that an almost permanent crease was stamped between his eyes. He frowned even more now as he went through the list a second time--then burst into a wide grin.
"Done--just about donel"
What should have been a simple job here at theWalsoken Plant had stretched on and on. It had been autumn when he had arrived to make the control installation, along with Buchanan, an hydraulics engineer. But Buchanan had had the bad luck--good luck really--to be laid low by an attack of appendicitis and had been spirited away by ambulance copter never to return. Nor had his replacement ever arrived. Jan had found himself supervising the mechanical installation in addition to his own electronics and autumn had stretched into winter with no end in sight.
It was in sight now. All of the major installations and repairs had been done; the plant was up and running. And he was going to get out. For a few weeks at least--and the manager would just have to fend for himself.
"Radcliffe, get in here. I have some interesting news for you."
The words cracked from every loudspeaker in the building, rolled and echoed. Within seconds there was the sound of running footsteps and the panting manager came hurrying into the room.
"Yes ... your honor?"
"I'm leaving. Today. Don't gape, man, I thought you would be pleased at the prospect. This antique vodka works is on line and should keep on running if you take care of all the maintenance on this list. I've hooked the computer through the network to fuelcon-cent where the operation will be monitored. Any problems will bring someone here fast But I don't expect any problems, do I, Radcliffe?"
"No, sir, of course not. Do our best, thank you, sir."
"I hope so. And may your best be a little bit better than it has been in the past. I'll be back as soon as I am able, to check operation and to see your list of completion. Now--unless there is anything else--I am going to get out of this place."
"No. Nothing, sir."
"Good See that it stays that way."
Jan waved the manager out as he unclipped his terminal and computer and stowed them in his case. Eagerly, for the first time it seemed, he pulled on the fleece-lined coat and driving gloves. One stop at the hotel to pack his bag and that was that! He whistled between his teeth as he slammed out of the door into the late afternoon gloom. The ground was frozen hard as rock and there was the smell of snow in the air. His car, red and shining, was the only touch of color in the drab landscape. Blighted fields stretched away on all sides in the flat landscape, silent under the drab gray sky. The fuel cell fired as soon as he turned the key; the heater warmed the interior with a rush of air. He drove slowly over the frozen ruts of the yard and out onto the paved road.
This was former fen country, now drained and plowed. But some of the old canals were still there; Wisbech was still an inland port. He would be glad to see the last of it. Packing took ten minutes--he believed in traveling light--and the manager held the front door and bowed him out and wished him a safe journey.
Just outside of town the motorway began. The police at the entrance saluted and he returned them an airy wave. Once on the automated road network he switched over to automatic, giving LONDON EXIT 74 as his destination. This information flashed from the transmitter under his car to the cable buried beneath the surface, to the network computer which routed him and sent back the command to the car computer in microseconds. There was a slow surge of acceleration by the electric wheel motors up to the standard 240 K.P.H., until the landscape became a blur in the gathering dusk. Jan had no desire to look out at it. He unlocked his seat and swiveled it about to face therear. There was whiskey ready in the bar compartment and water at the touch of a button. The television came on to a colorful and loud production of Peter Grimes. Jan enjoyed it for a minute, admiring the soprano not only for her voice--and tried to think whom she reminded him of.
"Aileen Pettit--of course!" He had a warm glow of memory; if she were only free now. She had little enough to do since her divorce. She should jump at the chance to see him. To think was to act. He punched for phone, then tapped her number quickly into the keys. It rang only twice before she answered.
"Jan. How nice of you to call."
"How nice of you to answer. Do you have camera trouble?" He pointed at his own dark screen.
"No, just blanked for privacy. You caught me in the sauna."
The screen came to life as she said this and she laughed at his expression. "Never saw a nude woman before?"
"If I have I've forgotten. They don't have women where I've been. At least none glowing and wet like you. Honestly, Aileen, I could almost weep for joy. You're the most beautiful sight in the world."
"Flattery will get you everywhere."
"And you're coming with me. Are you free now?"
"Always free, my love, but it depends on what you have in mind."
"Some sunshine. Some hot sun and warm ocean and good food, a case of champagne and you. What do you say?"
"I say it sounds unspeakably lovely. My bank account or yours?"
"My treat. I deserve something after this winter in the wilderness. I know this little hotel, right out in the desert on the shore of the Red Sea. If we leave in the morning we can get there ..."
"No details, please, my sweet. I'm going to sink back into my sauna and wait there for you. Don't be too long."
She broke the connection with the last word and Jan laughed out loud. Yes, life was going to be a lot better. He drained the glass of scotch and poured another one.
The frozen fen country was already gone from his mind.
He did not know that the man he had fired, Simmons, never would go back on the dole. He committed suicide just about the time Jan reached London.