Rikon > Short Stories > Karma Workers

Karma Workers

Janet waited in line with her daughter. They were processing people very slowly today, and she had no idea when she would be able to step through.

"Mama, where are you going?" her daughter asked. They always asked. Janet had never had a daughter who didn't ask. She was tired of answering.

At one time she had answered, but that was a long time ago and a lot had happened since.

Ignoring her daughter she looked through the heavy transparent aluminum wall into the time arena. It was a vast hollow space, like a sports cathedral. Perhaps large enough to hold a space liner, it's bowl-shaped floor swooped down into darkness, then suddenly leveled out perhaps a hundred feet or more below the level where Janet stood. Far below them in the focal point of the great bowl the time portal stood. A huge black obelisk that did nothing to dissuade the magical cults that had formed around the inconceivable science. Janet looked at the women around her and scanned the long line of today's karma workers stretching out ahead of her, being dispatched by threes and fours into the mouth of the portal.

When Janet was at her daughter's age, she had stood on this same ramp in a line just like this one, and had asked that same question. 'Mama, where are you going?'. But she had long since learned that there really was no answer to that. She wasn't going anywhere, and neither were any of her daughters or any of the women in the line. They were all staying right here, condemned by coincidence of birth to a life-time of time travel.

Janet looked up as she approached the first window. She handed the packet containing her invoice to the woman behind the counter and placed her arm in the restraint.

"Twins today? I see a male and a female. Have you had twins before?" the attendant asked as she stamped the invoice and entered the data into the medicomp.

Janet nodded politely, but she was unable to smile. She winced as the hypodermic injected the appropriate hormones into her blood stream, and thanked the attendant as she retrieved her arm and invoice.

For eighteen years Janet had worked on the karma line, going from time to time and back-water country to back-water country throughout the long sorted history of her people. Every twelve months another trip and another set of children. Mostly twins now - one of the engineers had given a lecture complaining about the enormous amounts of electricity eaten by the time arena, and said something about 'more bang for the buck'.

Sometimes she would get to see one of her children again, like this daughter she had never met before today. Other times she never did find out what happened to them.

"Harvesting the past for the future" the company called it, but the karma workers had another phrase for it; "Yesterday's sperm for tomorrow's bastards". Somehow the marketing group didn't think it would sell.

As she saw she was getting nearer the portal, she squeezed her daughter's small hand. "Honey, you know how you learned in school that long ago we made everything we needed right here on Earth?"

"Uh huh" her daughter nodded, grateful for the attention.

"Well, some of the things we made got into the air and the water, and it made people sick and everyone died from horrible diseases."

"That's right!" her daughter jumped, proud at remembering her lessons so well. "And then scientists made people stop getting sick and all the bad diseases went away and now no one ever gets sick ever again!"

"That's right, honey." Janet stomped down the feeling of love in her chest. This was just another daughter that she'd never see again, and there was no point getting mushy now; "But all the chemicals in the air made it so no one could have kids anymore."

"Yeah," her daughter interjected, pleased to be able to show her learning; "And all the men got so they couldn't make babies and the scientists couldn't make people or anything, and when people did die there was no babies to replace 'em."

"That's right, dear." Janet smiled at her daughter's beaming face. "So that's what we do here, we make babies. Maybe someday you'll be a mommy just like me." Janet saw that she was at the child-care window, and she knelt down and hugged her daughter one last time. "You'll be going back to the school, now, and I want you to grow up and be strong and really smart, ok? You be really good in school and get on one of those colonization projects where they go to worlds where people can have kids."

Janet's daughter smiled and nodded her head, then obediently took the waiting attendant's hand and skipped as she walked through the door.

As Janet watched her daughter leave, she realized that what she really wanted was for her daughters all to grow up to be one of those terrorists who occasionally bombed the portal arena. Or to captain a space ship that would take people away from earth and its rotted peoples that bred people like slaves.

Janet looked at her invoice and saw that she would be going to someplace called Minneapolis in the middle of the northwest of the old United States. The temperature would be in the hundreds, so she picked out a black miniskirt and halter top and some shoes from a box marked '1996'. She'd been there before, and thought it was kindof fun. Unlike most of the time's she'd been to, they at least had synthetic clothing and surgery.

Maybe even the kind of surgery that could remove the time-recall implants. The implants, she knew, were small organic components that were injected into a woman's breast and then would grow there. Removing it would involve removing the entire breast or both breasts. The institute knew that no woman would submit to that kind of radical surgery, and Janet shrugged her shoulders and sighed, resigned to her fate.

She had heard that a high percentage of karma workers sent to this time in earth's history didn't return, assumed dead, but it was a popular time politically since it was believed to be the last period during which men could reasonably be expected to procreate. The marketing group had decided that they wanted genes 'as close to our own as possible' even though it was those very genes that engineered the destruction of human fertility.

She handed her invoice to the engineer behind the counter of the staging platform, and he reviewed it and handed her a purse.

"A full month, huh?" The man smiled at her.

"A month?" Janet's knees nearly gave out "I've never been gone for more than a couple hours before. What the hell am I supposed to do for a month?"

The engineer handed her a packet containing several small plastic tubes and an instructional pamphlet. "Your group's part of an experiment. There's been too many workers not coming back lately, so you'll be collecting sperm."

In response to her stunned look he shrugged. "Too many no-shows on the recall, so fewer sent out means less exposure, fewer loses."

As she joined her group on the portal pad, the engineer added; "Cheaper, too. Less electricity sending you breeders out once a month."

Before Janet could respond, the world shifted and Janet fell for a moment, then she was standing on an empty street corner with the other karma workers. They conferred for a minute, then headed off in their separate directions looking for suitable mates.

The trash and angry shouts coming from side streets confirmed Janet's suspicions of this time's brutality and led credence to the suspicion the that missing karma workers were killed in the 'line of duty'.

Rounding a corner, she found a kiosk and entered it, hoping for an opportunity to catch her bearings. Trying to not look too suspicious, she grabbed a flyer and pretended to read it.

Pondering her situation, the thought of suicide entered her mind. Perhaps, given this society's medical level, she might be able to find an over-the-counter euthanasia drug and take it.

Suddenly, she froze and read again the title of the pamphlet she'd been holding; 'Breast Cancer in Women and Radical Mastectomy - the road to recovery'.

Janet read the brief pamphlet again, and, ignoring the leering shouts from some teenagers across the street, massaged her left breast, feeling with her fingertips the small lumps of the time-recall implants. Distantly, she recalled an engineer explaining to her that if a karma worker were discovered or died in the past, the vast technology represented by the time-recall implants would never alter the course of time, because any earlier technology would simply misinterpret them as cancer.

Janet looked more carefully at the street scene before her. It was still early afternoon, and across the street was a store whose windows were full of clothing, the sign over the door proclaiming it to be 'RagStock'. Looking in her purse she found the usual seven-hundred dollars, provided by the costumers to enhance the illusion of 'prostitute', plus a hidden compartment with an additional two thousand, supposedly to help her survive in the past for a month.

Janet tucked the brochure in her purse and walked into RagStock and looked uncertainly at the bizarre assemblage of clothing. The clerk, a wry smile on her face, walked over to Janet and asked if she could help.

Janet considered her situation for a moment, then put on her best smile. "I'm sorry, I'm kindof upset. I just found out I have, uhm, breast cancer."

The clerk's eyes widened, then she frowned and nodded; "Me too. Last year. I had both removed." She patted her flat chest for effect.

Janet looked uncomfortably at the clothing hanging from the ceiling, trying to avoid the clerk's face. She hadn't expected that 'cancer' had been that common. "How long from when it was discovered until they were, uhm, gone?"

The clerk considered Janet for a very long time, perhaps trying to figure out why she should care, but finally she shrugged. "Well, mine was pretty advanced, so my surgeon did the operation right away. It's kinda hard to talk about. I can get you in touch with the folks who helped me if you'd like."

Janet tried to suppress her smile but failed. "I'd like that a lot. I want to get it done right away and have it behind me."

The clerk went back behind the counter and began rummaging in her backpack for a set of support group brochures she was distributing. Janet followed her and, as the woman handed her the brochure, she made up her mind. "Maybe you can help me some more. See, I just quit my job today, and I need some clothes that look, uhm ..."

"Less like a hooker?" the clerk offered.

"Yeah." Janet laughed. "Less like a hooker."

Thirty days later, there was hell to pay at the time arena as the engineers struggled to explain how they could have lost another entire shipment of karma workers.


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