Within Rights
0 / 0 / 164 New Starfaring Era

              “I can’t lose this job, Joel!  I have a little girl to support!”

              Kari’s knuckles tightened against the desk.  It looked like wood, but was something else—some nanomaterial synthesized by robots in a factory.  Wood was cheap, imperfect; it had no place in today’s world.

              Joel stroked the short, well-trimmed beard that framed his square jaw.  His perfectly shaped, perfectly colored lips sank in regret.  He was handsome, and Kari hated him for it.  She had to keep reminding herself that it wasn’t his real face.  It was made in a factory, same as his desk, and grafted on by some plastic surgeon sporting a quadstick brainchip.  Asymmetry was ugly; it had no place in today’s world.

              “I’m just as good as the other guides,” Kari said, leaning forward.  The chair creaked with the weight of her determination.  “I’ve had compliments from guests, good performance reviews.  I may not be able to access every single last bit of information about the artist’s ex-girlfriend, but I love and appreciate art more than anyone, and the guests can tell.”

              Joel stirred the coffee in his mug, merch from the gift shop blazoned with Monteza’s famous painting of Orbital Nine.  Stir, stir, stir; it was his habit, when he was frustrated with her.

              “Kari, we’ve had this conversation before.  In order to compete with the other art museums on-station, we have to deliver a superior experience.  One of the keys to that experience are superior guides, guides that can speak to all the history, all the critical analysis, all the artist information--“

              “Name one time a guest has complained about my lack of knowledge.”

              Joel shook his head.  “They won’t complain.  But their experience with you will be different.  Lacking.  No matter how good, how passionate you are, you cannot compete with your peers unaided.  Your knowledge is but a drop compared to the ocean of data on the Network.” 

              Kari scowled.

            “I like you,” Joel continued, “and I want you to stay here.  But in order do that, you must get a brainchip and an implant.”

              Kari shook her head quickly.  “I can’t trust it.  Anything in my brain that’s not...me.

              Joel stroked his lips.  The wrinkles on his fingers glared against the unreal smoothness of his cheeks.  “Look.  I understand that getting an implant is a personal choice.  I don’t want to force you.  But implants are not the scary, untested prototypes they were when we were younger.  They’ve done all sorts of testing on them and they are completely safe.  I have one, and I love it.”

              Kari frowned.

              “We pay for the implant one hundred percent, since it’s a company product.  If I pull some strings I can get you a bonus to cover the co-pay for the brainchip installation.  But you have to agree to it now.  I have a museum to run here.  And not just a museum—“

              “The museum,” Kari said.  “Orbital Nine Art, the biggest and best art museum offplanet.  Maybe the best anywhere.”  It was true, and she was proud of it; one more reason she couldn’t leave.

              “Right,” Joel said.  “I’m sorry to have to ask this of you, since this program started long after you were hired.  But Nine Art has a reputation to uphold, and the person in charge of that reputation—is me.”

              Joel released the coffee stirrer and clasped his hands in his lap.  He leaned back in his tall executive chair.  It looked like brown leather, but she knew it wasn’t.

              Kari considered.  She only had a month’s worth of money saved: the job didn’t pay much and she was a single mother in an expensive city.  Worst case, they’d have to move out of the dome to the unemployed housing, with the drug addicts, alcoholics and crazies; Erin would have to adjust to yet another school, lose all her friends, and live off food stamps while Kari looked for work as a grocery store cashier.  Sure, she had a degree, but it was an art history degree.

              And she loved this job, loved Nine Art.  This was what she had went to school for.  This was her dream.  Start out as a guide, work her way up to museum curator.  She didn’t want to throw away that ambition out of fear.  But then she remembered the sickly yellow light of the kitchen chandelier, swaying slowly back and forth, chain slimed with crimson.  Her father’s body, slung across the refrigerator like an old shirt.

              She swallowed spit and memories.  I have to tell him, she thought, or he won’t understand.

              She leaned in closer.  “Do you know what my last name is?  My real last name?”

              Joel sat back, breathing slowly in obvious impatience.  “It’s not Abel?”

              “I changed my last name to Abel,” Kari said, because I wanted a different life, a different history.  A different family!  My real name…is Ather.  Kari Ather.”

              She closed her mouth, held her breath, as she waited for the information to hit him.  Joel looked out the window, frowning at the skyscrapers punctuating the blackness of space.  Then his eyebrows shot up as he remembered.  He pursed his lips, then turned back to hold her eyes with his own.  “Ather,” he said, in a careful, slow, voice, “as in, the Ather Murders?  You’re telling me you’re that Kari Ather?”

              “Yes,” Kari told her lap.  Sweaty palms clenched the knees of her black skirt.  “My mother was Mari Ather.  She got one of your fantastic new implants put in her head and the next day I walked in on her standing in a pool of my sister’s—“

              “I’m sorry,” Joel said, his face pale.  “I didn’t know.  There was no way I could know.  I mean, that was years ago.  You were just a little girl—“

              Kari was used to getting this reaction.  That’s why she had stopped telling her friends and her men who she was.  She was Kari Abel now; Kari Ather might well not have existed, except for the deep scars that her memories left on her psyche, scars that still gave her nightmares of screams and tears.

              “I didn’t want it to be known,” Kari said.  “That’s why I’ve never told you.  But since you are going to take away everything I’ve worked so hard for, my career, my family’s livelihood …I had to.”

              “Kari…I’m sorry.  It must have been hard for you to hear about implants from everyone, including me, without saying anything.”

              “I am never, ever going to get an implant, and now you know why.  If I have any say in it, my daughter won’t either.”

              Joel hunched over the desk.  “Kari.  While I can’t imagine what you went through, or what you feel, I understand your reasoning.  I understand why you are so adamant against this.”

              So I won’t ask it of you, Kari imagined, a flame of hope rising in her chest.  Keep working here and do a good job in your own way, like you always have. 

              “Unfortunately, the fact remains that this is a business, and we have a brand.  We can’t afford to have any weak spots.  Arthur Dennington is coming next week to review us.  And after that, Stacey Durnham.  Do you know how important that is for us?”

              Kari exhaled, feeling it warm her nostrils as it blew out of her along with her hope.  “More important than what I want,” she said.  She was old enough to know how business worked.

              “Sadly, yes,” Joel replied.  “I’m sorry to ask you to do this.  But I have to present a unified face to the visitors, especially our high-profile ones.  That means Nine Art implants for all our guides. Now, this may be rude, but, let me ask you something.  Have you been to counseling?”

              Kari laughed, short and dark.  “If it weren’t for counseling,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

              Joel closed his mouth, took a deep breath through his nostrils.  I’m being too hard on him, Kari thought.  I’m the one who’s causing trouble, I’m the one who doesn’t conform.  No one else has a problem with implants.  In fact, my friends think it’s weird that I don’t have one.  I’m the old kind of human, the kind that lived before the Network.  And we have no place in today’s world.

              Joel rubbed his temples, as if rearranging the words in there with his fingers.  “Kari.  I’ll make you a deal.  But this is your last chance.  Go to our company psychologist.  It’s covered.  I’ll explain the situation to him, and he can work with you on this…issue.  I’ll let you take short term leave for a few weeks while you talk to him, and, when you return, maybe you will feel better about getting an implant.”

              Kari was silent.

              “I’m only putting this on the table because you’re a good employee.  And, to be honest, I respect you.  I like your passion.  But that’s as far as I’m willing to go with this.  I have a vision for this museum, and I need my employees to embrace that vision.”

              Kari considered, in a wordless haze; but the panic that roared just underneath the surface of her restraint screamed No!  No!  No!

              She slumped into her seat.  Shook her head.  “If there’s a chance.  Any chance.  However small.  That I do to my daughter, or myself, what my mother did to my family…I can’t let that happen.  Not to my little girl.  Not to Erin.  I can’t do it, Joel.  I can’t…I can’t.”

              Joel exhaled, clasped his hands together on the desk.  He was silent, as if considering; but the flatness of his face told her he had already decided.  “I understand.  I don’t mean to upset you.  If you can’t do it, that’s fine.  I respect you and I respect your decision.”

              Kari covered her eyes with her palm. 

              “But if we cannot work it out,” Joel continued, “I will have to ask you to leave Orbital Nine Art.”

              Kari felt self-pity and despair come up from the depths of her heart.  Under cover of her fingers, she stared at her skirt, black as hopelessness.  Am I really going to lose my job?  Over this? Is mother even going to take this away from me?!  Then she felt an even deeper anger lurch up to the surface. 

              She scowled, and thought.  There had to be something she could say.  She’d thought about this before.  This wasn’t the first time he had advertised his implants to her.  The air system hummed in the ceiling as her brain worked.

              Finally, she looked up at him.  She grew tall.  Her mouth firmed into a line, her eyes hardened.  “You can’t do this,” she said.

              Joel raised his eyebrows.  “Hmm?”  His face lost its softness, skin forming into taught edges.  He opened his mouth to reply—she didn’t let him.

              “It’s discrimination,” she said, eyes narrowing.

              Joel heard the word, then fell back in his chair.  Looked at the ceiling.  Looked back at Kari.  “Are you going to do this, now?  Really?  I’ve just explained why an implant is necessary to work here.  I’ve went far out of my way to accommodate you.  It’s not—“

              “You are discriminating against me, in a professional environment, for my personal lifestyle choices.”

              “Personal choices,” Joel said, pitch rising, “Which have a clear and graded impact on your job performance!  We’re well within our rights—“

              “I wonder,” said Kari, “If you are.  I have a lawyer, you know…”

              Joel was silent.  His brow furrowed.

              They can’t fire me now, Kari thought.  That would make the case look even worse.

              “You’re on short term leave,” Joel stated, “While I contact our legal team on this matter.  I’ll call you with the results of those discussions in a few days.”

              “And I’ll let you know what my legal team says,” Kari smarted off.  “I may not have as much money as you, but the Writ of Rights is still part of the Constitution.  Not even you, Joel, can change that.”

              “You’re free to be angry at me.  But, Kari, listen.  You are not doing yourself any favors.  The way the world is headed, you will need to get an implant sooner or later.  They only came out…twenty years ago, and you still haven’t hit thirty.  If they’re almost mandatory now, what do you think the situation will be like when you are forty?  Fifty?  There may come a time when you won’t be able to find any work at all—“

              “It’s my head,” Kari returned, “And I say what goes in it.  No one else.  No one.”

              “You’re free to do as you please,” Joel said, waving his hands.  “But, if I have my way, you won’t be doing it here.  Because this is my museum.”

              “It’s my museum too,” Kari said quietly.  “At least, I want it to be.”

              Joel sighed.  “Get out of here.  Go home.  And don’t return to work until I contact you.”

              Kari rose from her seat.  Smoothed her skirt, without meeting his eyes.  Turned and walked to the door.

              “Fly home safe,” Joel said, without malice.

              Kari wanted to answer his kindness, but did not.  She had decided.  The war was on.






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