The chirp of the door sensor startles him. He glances up at the antique clock on the bookcase. Right on time, as usual. She knows Halder hates surprises.
He double checks that everything in the room is in its proper place and waves the door open to see Administrator Alondra framed in the entranceway. Her thick chestnut hair is in its typical Kythirion braid and she is wearing the mint green dress with the gold trim that Halder thinks shows off her bust so nicely. He has decided that there is a thirty-five percent chance it’s been (tastefully) augmented.
She’s carrying a small potted tree this time. That’s odd.
“Administrator. Please, come in.”
He watches as Alondra proceeds to the small table, stopping to bend down and place the tree on the floor. Forty percent. Halder moves a stack of paper from the chair across from her and sits down.
She studies him for a moment. “Halder, how are you?” She always starts that way.
“Going well. My latest tweaks to the algorithm are promising…maybe as much as a one percent increase to the…”
“No, I mean you. How are you?”
“Oh.” Something is off. She usually takes notes during these official check-ins. “I…I’m well?”
“I hope so. Listen, Halder.” She pauses. “There’s been a change. To the onboard automation project.”
He knew it. “If this is about the incident the other day with the freight scrapper, I can assure you that the system acted well within acceptable parameters. It was those boneheads in docking that don’t know how to read a fucking training manual!”
“No. The system acted perfectly. It always does. That’s what I want to discuss today. As you know, I’ve been sending summary reports to the station leadership board. They are quite pleased with your results and with the current state of the project.”
He waits, categorizing Alondra’s last few sentences as stalling.
She continues, looking down at her lap as she adjusts one of her silver bracelets. “In fact, the board feels that the system is performing so well that it might not need any further enhancements. At this time.”
Blood rushes to Halder’s head and his stomach drops. “But the enhancements! I’ve come up with a way to lower the response time of the ventilation unit to half a second!”
“And what is it now?”
“Almost a full second.”
Alondra lets out a sigh. “See, this is what I mean. The board doesn’t care if it takes a second for the air to come on. No one does, Halder. You’re so focused on the problem of efficiency that you don’t realize there isn’t a problem at all. You’re chasing your tail down here.”
Halder starts to feel unmoored from his chair. He grips the table and mumbles his next words. “You don’t understand my work.”
“I don’t. And neither does the board, which is a problem. When they asked me what tangible result-”
“You don’t think I’m important?”
“I do. I need help explaining why.”
“I built all of this! The whole system!”
“You did. And we thank you. And now? What do you do now?”
“I maintain it, every single day.” Halder rises from his chair and walks to the sink, leaning on it with a scowl.
“Okay, today for instance. What did you do today?”
He glances at the wooden cabinet near the living room. “I made sure there were no problems.”
“And were there?”
Silence hangs in the air before Alondra clears her throat. “Halder, I want to ask you something personal. I hope you don’t mind.” She takes the continued silence as permission, “When was the last time you left your quarters?”
Halder considers. “Well I’ve been…It was probably…” He couldn’t recall. It was surely more recent than last month’s State of the Ship formations, though he couldn’t think of a specific example. He liked to rely on the ship’s automated supply delivery conveyance. He’s proud of it.
“Am I the only person who visits you?”
He ignores the question, staring at a dish in the sink.
Alondra closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, getting back to business. “Halder, you were chosen from many qualified applicants and you hold a very privileged position as a member of this ship. As your commanding officer I am required to present justification of your commission renewal. Your review is coming up in less than two months.”
“You’re going to release me?” Halder’s eyes are wide and unfocused. He disappears into his mind for a moment, considering the implications. Non-renewal means going back to the war. Back down to Chimeria. To poverty and death.
Alondra rushes her words, “I don’t have to release you as long as I can prove you’re providing tangible value to the mission. It would look fine if you wrapped up this successful project and immediately picked up another. It would probably even earn you some goodwill come ration adjustments.”
“But I’ve been working on this system for two years. What else do I do?”
Alondra stands and walks to the door, waving her hand to open it. “That’s up to you. I’m not going to hand you a project- everyone on the ship creates his own agenda, you know that. I’ve added value by serving as the liaison between the board and our crew, and that’s what I intend to continue to do at your review in two months. Please give me something to justify you staying. Please, Halder.”
Her face softens into a warm smile, then she turns to go through the door. He watches the mint green dress walk down the hallway, the door left wide open. “The tree is a gift, Halder. Water it.”