By K W Warburton, The Reluctant Spoonie
“Its half pay for your sort.”
I shifted in my chair. “I’m sorry.”
They stopped typing and look at me with all four of their eyes instead of just the top two. “Two arms, half the work. Half the pay. 275 pearls per week” They sighed as if they’d repeated that line once to many times. All four of their eyes blinked at me.
“I understand.” I replied, even though I didn’t fully.
They handed me the completed forms with their top two arms, the other two continued typing. The bugs, as we called them, had four ‘arms’ and two legs. They scuttled around on four of their appendages, leaving their top two ‘arms’ free. All of their appendages looked the same- skinny with little feelers on the end. They had four eyes, two close together in the centre of their head with the other two on either side slightly below the central two. On top of their heads were two antennae that jiggled every time they spoke or moved.
“Fluro will show you to your pod.” They waved me away with their free arms. All four of their hands went back to typing as I left the room. Hands was a generous term to what was on the end of their arms. I usually referred to them as feelers. I could do more with my ten fingers that they could with their twelve feelers any day, but because this world was set up for their sort, us humans always got the short straw when it came to jobs, housing and pay.
“What do they call you?” Fluro asked as we walked down the hallway.
“Is that a family name?” Fluro was young and chatty. I was probably one of the first humans that she’d seen up close.
“No. It’s because of my eyes.”
They turned to look at me and her four large bug eyes stared into mine. “They are a funny colour, aren’t they? Can you see much with only two?”
I smiled politely at them. It wasn’t the first time that I’d been asked that by one of them. I was grateful for this job and wasn’t going to ruin it by making a snarky comment at who I assumed to be their office manager.
“Here’s your pod.” They gestured to a small alcove with two screens and four keyboards. “The login details are on your form. Shout if you need anything.” They scuttled away.
I sat at my pod, like I’d been told. The desk was the wrong height and like everything on this planet, it was slightly sticky. On average, the bugs were a foot taller than us humans so everything was always just out of reach. Shelves at the supermarket, door handles and even some chairs were too tall for me. They hadn’t bothered to lower anything since humans had begun to inhabit the planet. Although, inhabit was a generous term. Three Earth years ago we were promised a resettlement deal to live on a new planet. A lot of people my age jumped at the chance. Jobs were hard to come by on Earth and the thought of guaranteed work on a different plant sounded too good to be true. It was. Our planet had sold us as part of a trade deal to work in the mines of this insect-like species. Very quickly, they realised that not all humans were strong or tall enough to work in the mines and had to offer us jobs elsewhere, like the pods.
“How’s it going?” A dark brown bug scuttled up to my pod.
“Pretty good.” I lied. I had only managed half of what I was supposed to. Maybe half pay was fair after all.
“You’ll need to grow two more arms to keep up with me.” They laughed before dumping a load of papers on my desk. “Get these done before 8.”
I picked up the stack of papers which had a thin layer of slime all over it and started processing them. Their language was simpler than English and used symbols much like emojis. I’d got 100% in my language proficiency test which was probably why I had been assigned to a pod job straight away instead of having to do a year in the mines.
We worked the equivalent of a 14-hour shift on Earth as the days here lasted 28 hours. Most humans spent their days bundled in several layers of clothes because the planet was 10 degrees colder than Earth. I was exhausted after my first pod shift and extremely cold as I had not yet acclimatised to the new temperature range. I squashed into the shuttle with the other humans to go back to the human district. We were not permitted to be in the alien district after working hours. The other humans looked just as tired and cold as I did. I lived in a block of flats (or hive as they were known here) that had been built for humans to live in. I had my own room with a single bed, wardrobe and overhead light that blinked every ten seconds. It was much like the one I had lived in on Earth, except now I had my own room instead of sharing with ten others. The small window could be opened. I had made the mistake of doing that on my first day and someone ran in and snapped it shut again.
“Don’t ever open the window.” They said angrily before storming out again. The air always had an unpleasant sulfur scent and it was worse when the wind was coming from the direction of the mine.
I lay on my lumpy bed in the dark as the light had given me a migraine once too often and wondered if I had made the right choice in coming here. I fell asleep before I could give myself an answer.
Two weeks into my new job and the daily schedule was already draining me. Getting up in the morning was hard. Not that they had morning and night here. They had dusk and more dusk. The sky was always hazy with red dust which the light from the sun never fully broke through. I dragged myself out of bed when my alarm went off and queued for the shared bathroom like everyone else. I had bought more appropriate clothes so I was not as cold as I had been. Most of our food was imported from Earth, but the shipments were often delayed which meant that we often had to eat the same food as the bugs. I could stomach it, but a lot of the others could not and went without food on those days.
“How can you eat that?” Fluro said with disgust, looking at my sandwich.
I shrugged. They went back to eating what I could only compare to pigswill, their antenna waggling with every mouthful. The canteen was crowded. The humans sat together mostly. Fluro liked to join us as and had a deep fascination with Earth and the people who inhabited and destroyed it. They liked to ask questions. I didn’t mind. It was better than being made fun of or bullied.
A person with red hair approached our table and quickly slipped a piece of paper under my tray when Fluro wasn’t looking. They were engrossed in a conversation about cats.
“Do you eat them?” They asked. The bugs didn’t keep pets.
I read the note under the table. Surprisingly, it was written in English. All it said was an address in the human district and time of 10 pm. I turned to ask the red-haired person a question, but they had already disappeared. The horn sounded to signify the end of our lunch break and we went back to our pods for another seven hours of slimy work.
I went to the address on the note and stood outside. I pressed the grubby intercom button and the video screen crackled into action. A human face appeared on the fuzzy screen. “How many hands?” they asked.
“Two?” I replied.
The door buzzed open and I went inside.
The room was dark and smelt like the sweet and sickly cigarettes that my grandpa used to smoke. There were around thirty humans in the room. I could see the red-haired person who’d slipped me the note at the far side of the room. They were deep in conversation with two other humans. Someone pushed a bottle into my hands.
“Drink up, blue eyes.”
A grey-haired older human climbed on a table. They had scarring from a burn on half his face. Like most of us, he wore several layers of clothes, but theirs were more worn and threadbare than most.
“Order! We don’t buzz like those bloody insects.” The room fell silent.
“Two hands are just as good as four and we deserve a fair wage from these buggers. Too many of us come here from Earth, hoping for a better life and it just isn’t. Five lives were lost last week in the mines and a further ten in our district as a whole. If we don’t stand up for ourselves now, then these buggers will be walking all over us for the rest of our lives.”
A few people cheered and there was a collective mumbling from the crowd. I was standing towards the back of the room. The red-haired person was sitting on a table towards the front. They nodded along with everything that the grey-haired human was saying. I could see a scar across their cheekbone when they pushed their red hair back.
“What do you want us to do? Gas them out like bed-bugs?” Someone shouted from the middle of the crowd.
“No. They’ll be no violence this time. Monday at noon, we walk.”
There were a few cheers and a collective murmur amongst the crowd
“No complaining. This is what we are going to do to get the buggers to listen to us.”
“I’m not going to bug-jail again.” A voice piped up from across the room.
“And you won’t, not if we stick together and keep it peaceful this time.”
I left swiftly after the speech as I didn’t want to be part of an uprising. I didn’t fear bug-jail. I feared being sent back to Earth with its air that choked you whenever you went outside at the wrong time. Going hungry because I couldn’t afford food. Living in a room with ten other people. My heart pounded in my chest at the thought of it.
“Hey! Wait up!” Someone called out behind me. I turned around. It was the red-haired person. “Pretty exciting, huh. Are you in?”
“Um. I don’t know.” I replied as they fell into step with me.
“We work in the same pod. You hang around with that nosey bug.”
“They’re not nosey. Just interested. I don’t think they’ve seen much of humans before.”
“That’s the problem. They see us as a novelty. They’re not your friend, you know.”
We walked in silence for a while. The sky was darker at this time of day, but it never got fully dark here. I missed the moon and the stars from Earth. I pulled my scarf up over my nose to help block out the pungent smell that lingered in the air.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Flame.” They replied.
“Because of your hair?”
“No, because of my fiery temper.” They laughed. “This is my hive.” They pointed at the building opposite where we were standing.
“Think about it. I’ll be watching you, Blue.” They skipped away up the path to their hive.
Monday arrived and I still hadn’t decided if I would join the strike. Sure, my pod job was terrible and the bugs that I worked with didn’t treat me well. But some were nice, even if they saw me as a curiosity. I sat at my desk, which was still too high for me even bolstered on the cushions I had brought from home. My first paycheck had been less than I expected as bug taxes had taken a huge bite out of it. Once I’d paid my rent, food and transport costs, I would have a grand total of ten pearls left which wasn’t even enough to make a long-distance call to Earth.
I sighed as I looked at the stack of sticky papers that I had to transcribe that day. A bug sniggered, waggling their antennae as they dropped off another stack for me. I watched the clock tick round. I had five hours left to make my decision. I saw the person with the flame-red hair pushing a cart around, delivering items to each bug. Her smile faded and became more forced with each delivery. I went back to my transcription, entering the details from each sticky page.
The bugs buzzed around me as they busily completed their tasks. Another stack of papers was deposited on my desk.
“Hurry up, fleshy. These need to be done today.”
The teetering pile crashed to the floor, scattering the sticky pages everywhere. I hurried to gather them back up.
“It’s almost time. Are you ready? This will only work if we’re all in this together.” Flame whispered in my ear as she helped me to pick them up.
At that moment, my hands full of sticky sheets, I made my decision. I could not let the buggers win.
A note from the writer
“I wrote this piece to highlight the challenges that people with disabilities face in the workplace. Many feel as if they are forced to work in an alien environment that is not designed for them. If you work part-time due to your illness or disability, then you are, in fact, taking a pay-cut because of it. These everyday discriminations are happening right now and that needs to change.”–K W Warburton, thereluctantspoonie.com