In this first post of the Corporal Xasl short story, we learn how difficult life is for an unemployed man who is too proud to beg even in the worlds aided by the great masters…
Xasl picked up his tool bag and shifted the backpack with his extra set of work clothes and boots to a more comfortable position on his shoulders. Another day at the day labor pickup point and once again no work. Today marked three weeks since his last full day’s work.
He had run out of credits two days ago and was really beginning to feel the pinch of hunger. Yesterday, he had been able to talk a small clothing shop owner into letting him repair a couple of display racks for enough credits to buy a small salad and a cup of caf. But if he didn’t find work soon, he might have to consider selling his tools just to eat.
Xasl felt the crisp breeze of fall and headed for the nearest shelter, he already knew they would turn him away. Single men were always the last to get a bed in most towns and he knew this town was no different. He remembered a couple of years ago being here with his wife and they got the last bed ahead of three single men.
That was just a couple days before a man they had met on the construction site convinced her to leave Xasl and move in with him. It was hard to blame her for saying yes. The man was a permanent employee and had been with the company for 3 years. Longer than Xasl had ever held a job. Like his father before him, Xasl was just one set of tools better off than the permanently homeless. Most years he had lodging more often than he didn’t, but still it was a hard life for a pretty young wife. Especially when there were times like this with just enough food to avoid starvation.
Of course he could beg and probably get enough credits to eat a meal or two per day. But he had been raised by a man who would not tolerate begging or stealing. Xasl could still hear him in his memory.
“We have skills. We will work for a living as long as I’m alive.”
Of course he had been dead for many years, but his father had instilled that sense of pride in his son very well. Xasl made it to the shelter and saw the reality of what he had known would be true. There was already a long line of people waiting for beds. This shelter only had 112 beds, and there had to be nearly 200 people in line. Some children with no parents, they would get picked first. Then there were a number of families, and they would get selected next. Then there were several couples. They would get picked because you could shelter two people with one bed that way. The logic was solid. Then the single women, presumably to protect them from the single men. And if there were any beds left, the single men were picked from oldest to youngest.
Xasl was no longer among the youngest men, but he was not old enough to be at the top of the list either. He turned around and headed for the park. There were a couple of places there with a little bit of shelter. Usually a man who did not beg or steal from the park visitors could stay there and not be run off by law enforcement.
Xasl went in, the first place he checked was a little bridge over a small fishing creek. But there was a man under each side already. He moved on to the spot next to the maintenance shed. An older man and woman were huddled there. He kept going and was pleased to see the spot between the two fallen trees was not occupied. He pushed his tool bag in first, then his backpack and he crawled in after that. Home for the night. He sighed and leaned back on his two bags and closed his eyes.
I really need to figure out how to get one of those long term gigs. There are several large buildings being built, surely one of them has room for someone with his own tools. They will be building clear through the winter. That would be some good work. There has to be a way to get around that union requirement.
Or maybe one of the factories needs a maintenance engineer. Who am I kidding, I have been to them all. Nobody is hiring right now. Maybe it is time to change cities again.
Xasl tried to remember which city he was in and could not remember. He had been wandering from city to city for so long they were all the same now. The light was beginning to fade and soon it would be completely dark. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the rumbling of his stomach as he slipped in and out of a light sleep. Three times he heard people come close enough to see that he was already in the spot and then curse and move on. It was a sign of how long he had been in this city that no one tried to steal the spot from him.
Every new city he had to show someone the working end of his hammer a few times before people started leaving him alone. Finally, it was completely dark and all the sounds of the city began to die down. Eventually, Xasl slipped into a restful sleep.
…Xasl awoke to the sound of the birds overhead. The sky was just beginning to lighten as he pulled his backpack and tool bag out from under the trees and headed across the park toward the business center.
He could feel the weakness of too many days with too little to eat and prayed that this would be the day he would find a full day’s work.
Xasl walked into the main retail center and scanned the area. There was the baker who ran him off yesterday. No sense trying that, and the lawyer who had him thrown in jail for loitering. That was a possibility, they do give you a meal in jail. Then he saw a muscular woman opening the door to an office he had not noticed before. She was new. He focused and walked toward her trying to straighten his clothes and look as competent as possible. As he approached, she turned toward him and smiled catching him off guard.
“Good morning, welcome. Please come in I have some hot caf and sweetbread to share if you have a few minutes to talk.”
“Uh, yes. I mean I could spare a few minutes. In fact, if you need some work done on the building or something, I could really use a day’s work. I work cheap, but my work is first rate.”
“I’m sure it is. My building is in good repair, but I might have some work you would be interested in. Come in and tell me what you are good at so I can see if we have something that will match your abilities.”
She smiled and guided him into a very nice office with lots of pictures of heros and people getting recognized by important politicians. There was even a picture of her receiving a medal of some sort from what looked like a high ranking military officer.
“Here, have a seat. You can set your bags over in the corner, I assure you they will be safe here. Do you like anything in your caf?”
“Uh, a little sweetener if you have it. Or straight up is fine too.”
“I have sweetener. Here you go.”
She came back and sat at the small table across from him pushing a hot cup of caf over to him along with a dish that had a variety of sweeteners in it. In the middle of the table was a plate stacked with sweetbreads of several varieties. And Xasl’s stomach rumbled as he looked at them.
“Go ahead, take one. I like these myself they are made of vegetables, but taste like they are packed with fruit.”
She pointed to one that looked like a small loaf of bread, with white frosting on top. Xasl examined the tray and picked the largest of the items there. It was a large round bread with nut chips and some sort of filling in the center.
He forced himself to eat slowly savoring every bite and allowing his stomach to adjust to having something so rich after having nothing for so long.
“So, I see you have a bag of tools. Do you work on travelers? Or build buildings?”
“Well, a little bit of both actually, whatever needs doing. I don’t have a comp so can’t do much with the newer travelers, but I can do the small things like changing the tracks, or fixing a dent.
Not much I can’t do with buildings though. I can do layout, framing, exterior, interior, even finish work.”
“Excellent! How about hand to hand combat. I assume you have had to defend yourself on the streets here.”
“I can hold my own. I’m not good enough to make a living at it though if that’s what you are asking.”
“No, but if you have a little talent, we can work with that. How about education? You speak as though you are reasonably well educated.”
“I made it through school with no issues. Even studied at a couple of vocationals when I had enough money to pay the fees.”
“Good! Very good. And how about family?”
“Family’s all dead. Except my wife, she left me for a better provider.”
“Okay. Well, just a couple more things. If you could have your dream job, what would that look like?”
Xasl thought about that question for a while running through all the jobs he had done in his life and those he had read about.
“I think I would like to be a comp spec working on one of those starships. They get to see lots of places and they earn a good enough salary to enjoy it.”
That brought a big smile to her face. And Xasl looked down at the table in embarrassment. Briefly noticing that he had finished the pastry. She brought him in here to make fun of him and he had not even had the foresight to save part of that pastry for tomorrow.
Xasl, took a final swallow of the caf and got up turning to gather his things.
“Wait. Why are you leaving? We haven’t even talked about the jobs I have available. Don’t you want a long term job?”
Xasl paused. What if she were not making fun of him? Could he really afford to turn his back on the possibility that she was really offering him a job?
He set his things back down. He could not afford to miss any opportunity for work.
“Good, good. Sit back down and have another sweetbread. I’ll get you another caf and then you can take a quick questionnaire on the comp and we’ll see what pops up. But I already know we have openings for comp specs, if that is really what you want to do. You would have to go to training for a few months and commit to a couple of years with us afterward, but it is a possibility if you want it and can learn the skills required.”
“Ma’am, please. I will let you poke fun at me in return for another sweetbread and some more caf because I’m hungry. But please don’t say things like that and get my hopes up.”
“I’m not teasing you, or making fun of you. I am dead serious about the comp spec positions, they are high on my priority list. But you have to have the ability to learn the skills, and you must be willing to commit to working for us for a couple years. Is that a problem?”
Xasl stat there for a moment staring at his sweetbread while his mind tried to come to grips with what she had said.
“So you are offering to train me, and give me a job for at least 2 years? What happens if I can’t learn the skills?”
“Well, we will try to find something else you can do that we need and match you up with another job. You still work for us for the entire commitment.”
“Okay, what’s the catch? I don’t get paid, is that it?”
“The pay is good. There is no catch. You fill out the questionnaire which will help us figure out if you have the aptitude to succeed as a comp spec or some other desirable skill. Then you pick your job, and we sign you up. Your salary will be competitive, and will be guaranteed by the high councilor for as long as you remain in the military in good standing.”
“That sounds pretty good. You said two questions earlier, what is the other one?”
“Do you have a criminal record?”
“I’ve been arrested for vagrancy twice. Is that a problem?”
“No other arrests or convictions?”
“No, vagrancy is not an issue for us. But if the check finds you have convictions for any violent crime, or serious criminal activity. You will be disqualified.”