17:00 arrived and Juid donned his finest evening attire. What that translated to was: whatever garment held the least amount of that familiar body odor/chemical degreaser combination. And in Juid’s case, that meant a folded jumpsuit he never wore because he got asbestos in it once and it itched ever since. Chronic itching caused anxiety, but the alternative would be immediate rejection due to woman’s hypersensitive olfactories. So he used it for precisely these occasions, rare though they may be. And it didn’t look bad, just—informal. But that was to be expected. Only upper management had formal wear, and there were no new sources so even those would be lost to time eventually. Besides, with the bar being set so low, no one else going to the event would be dressed any better.
But there was another problem that weighed on Juid’s mind, one much greater than a jumpsuit. Being so outnumbered, the women were notoriously choosy. But unknown to Juid, however, was that the competition created a bigger problem: men giving other men advice on women, who possessed no incentive to give good advice even if they had any to offer. So Juid was perpetually armed with an arsenal of painfully cringe-worthy tactics. Juid rehearsed some of these lines to himself as he strode to Lower Commons.
“A woman such as yourself deserves a hard-working man.” No, that only played into a woman’s entitlement. Bring them down a bit. “A woman needs to choose before she becomes too old. Let’s discuss my credentials.” That might be too direct the lead with, albeit the truthful goal. Perhaps he should appeal to a woman’s inherent narcissism. “Beauty befits beauty. A woman of your grace deserves equal male perfection.” Juid flexed his bicep, feeling the working man’s bulge tighten against the synthetic fibers of his suit. He let out a manly grunt whilst doing so for self-validation, drawing curious gazes from passersby. These were valid statements, in his mind. A woman wanted a man who was properly ambitious, physically attractive, and who fell into an acceptable tier of economic viability. But the women liked to play games, and Juid would need to be coy with his advances. They wanted to be pursued relentlessly by a man who didn’t appear desperate.
Juid reached Lower Commons and presented his identification to the attendant. After all, attendance was restricted, otherwise using the events as incentive would be pointless. And because it was so important to maintain the effectiveness of these non-material rewards, the attendant took an agonizingly lengthy review of Juid’s credentials. While he waited, Juid looked past the attendant. The party was just getting started, as Juid had learned to arrive exactly when the events began. He wanted first contact with the women, as all did, and the entry queue invariably grew to occupy the entire hall as newcomers arrived, and those not invited timed their own arrival in an attempt to blend into the crowd to gain entry. As he stared, a woman walked past his field of view, and in that instant, Juid’s parasympathetic systems jolted with primitive elation and anxiety. She wore evening wear—a dress even—and though it possessed no sequins or rhinestones, it managed to achieve glamor through the use of polished aluminum beads. Juid’s hands twitched slightly with the testosterone-induced animal urge to attack.
“You may enter.”
“Mmm?” Juid missed his cue, then recovered. “Oh!” He immediately stepped past the attendant and uncouthly powerwalked in the direction the woman had gone. As he searched, he rehearsed his lines. “Hello, woman. I would like to discuss…things. What economic station do you desire? Would you care to see a demonstration in virility?” He spotted the woman, seated at the bar. Excited, he quickened his pace and stumbled clumsily into the chairs next to her. Startled, she abruptly turned to face him. Her eyes were icy and indifferent, save the tinge of surprise. “Hello woman!” Juid blurted, much too loud.
She stared but said nothing, so Juid mistook the silence as a prompt for more. “It’s nice to see you. You look nice.” A smooth recovery with a general compliment. Juid tried not to stare. He stared.
“Thank you”, she responded. She turned back to her drink. She was, after all, obligated to converse, having been assigned to the task by upper management. To her, this was part of her job and she was not terribly engaged with it. Still, the mere feminine quality of her voice tugged at Juid’s lower functions.
“Are you actively pursuing a spouse?” Juid winced, not because he recognized his words were worthy of the wince, but because he knew he was playing his cards too soon.
“The search never ends.” Her response was the general requirement—to show availability and remain noncommittal.
So Juid responded in kind. “I’m a Hazardous Environment Maintenance Technician.” He used his full title, hoping to add the allure of danger. Women were known to be attracted to risk, not to mention the increased compensation that came with such a position. Juid did, after all, live a middle class lifestyle.
“Yes, that was my understanding.” Of course it was. This event was being hosted specifically for the HEM team. Still, Juid was the ranking unit member, so he could elaborate.
“I led this morning’s repair work. There was a local hull breach from a foreign object. I can tell you about it if you like.” Maybe she would be interested in hearing about Juid’s competent work.
“Certainly. Go on.” She turned back to engage him, momentarily thankful that he was distracted with his work and not her. From her perspective, this was a win. Perhaps she could keep the conversation away from her and any marital/reproductive plans.
And Juid, with the delightful surprise anyone receives at having their work seem valued, launched into a monologue detailing how he bravely welded an aluminum plate to the outer hull in complete vacuum. The woman listened and practiced professional visual cues of interest, despite the lack thereof.
But her intent to keep the conversation off her was ultimately doomed. Juid then asked: “So tell me about yourself.” It was a pointless question, and the answers rarely varied in significance. Infant mortality was high, and with such demand for heavy labor, women became under-valued for physical tasks. With resources allocated to the workforce, girls typically suffered chronic malnutrition and succumbed to disease very early. Those who made it to womanhood were drafted into the consort ranks—no exceptions.
But all individuals retain their vanity, and despite how banal her story might have been, she wanted to feel unique and meaningful. So she told her story with the appropriate embellishments, of her abusive father and absent mother. Of her orphaning when her father died in a maintenance accident. Of how she had had to fend for herself until she was of age and could enter the consort program. It was tragic, certainly, and likely mostly false. And besides, everyone’s life had become tragic.
But still, Juid responded with genuine kindness. Woman or not, she was a person, and life here was hard. “That must have been very difficult. You’re very strong to have survived. Have you given any thoughts to your future plans?”
The question was riddled with implications, of course, and the woman merely sighed, having finally been unable to indefinitely forestall the inevitable. “Look, I’ll say this tactfully, because you had the decency to start a conversation first, but I’m not interested. With the options available to me, I’m not going to choose a maintenance technician. I’m here because this is my assignment, but soon enough I will have the opportunity to entertain at events for the higher levels of management. At that point I will move on a man of high station.”
She had already decided. Inwardly, Juid frowned. He hadn’t even had the opportunity to use his more charming lines. Automatically, he glanced around, but by now the room was filled and crowds had gathered around each of the other women. Many other men were eyeing Juid and the woman intently, waiting for their turn. He was instantly irritated at the pointless game, and felt extreme contempt for his peers, leering as they were. Perhaps it was because Juid was just like them. Well, he could still have his victory.
“Ok, now that that’s been discussed, I have a different proposition for you.”
“You know that’s against the rules. Breaking that carries heavy sentencing. Besides, I doubt you could make it worth my while.”
“No, I didn’t mean that.”
“Oh.” The woman seemed surprised, and a tad disappointed. No doubt she received that proposition constantly and had responded automatically. It hadn’t occurred to her that Juid would want something else. And despite her lack of interest, the fact that Juid wasn’t propositioning her partially deflated her ego. She had no interest, but she certainly felt that Juid should still have physical interest in her. She was a woman, after all.
“I presume, then, that you have no interest in any of the other men here, considering your prior comments. If our conversation were to end, you would no doubt have to repeat yourself to every man in this room before the evening ends. Stay with me for the party, and I’ll consider the matter dropped. We can discuss other affairs, and together escape the indignities of romantic rejection.”
The woman blinked. She hadn’t considered this option. “This seems like a fair exchange, but I feel I would gain more. What do you have to gain from this arrangement?”
“Simple. If you spend that amount of time with me, the other men will assume there’s more where there isn’t. I gain some peer reputation. What’s more, is I’ll have a chance to speak with a woman on equal terms, and potentially learn more about them, with all pretenses set aside. It’s a tactic I hadn’t considered before.”
“It’s a new concept to me as well. Very well then, you have yourself a deal, though I should warn you that there may not be much insight to be had. You see, I haven’t met a woman yet who feels differently that I. You are quite possibly, out of luck, unless you manage to achieve a higher station.”
“I’m beginning to suspect as much.” Juid thought for a moment. “Is there anything I have or can do that you want?”
“Are we already back to this? I told you I’m not interested…”
“No, you misunderstand. I’m thinking we can create a mutually-serving partnership, if there’s anything I have that you want.”
“Ah, you wish to bribe me then. That’s uncommon for the lower folk. I’m not sure. What is it that I have that you want?”
“Advice, or information, regarding a certain Bob.”
“Mmm, so you’ve taken my words to heart already and are seeking promotion. Do you wish to gain his good graces, or replace him?”
“Is it really so obvious?”
“Station intrigue come with the job. So which is it?”
“Replace him. He is fairly useless, and I doubt he’d ever consider me for promotion. I tend to not make him look good.”
“He’s also a lecher. Some of my colleagues have complained about him, though I’ve never had the pleasure of his company myself.”
“So you’ll help me?”
“Absolutely not.” She laughed. “Don’t you see? There’s no sisterhood among the consorts. It brings me joy to see my competition suffer.”
Juid thought a moment. It was obvious he’d have to up the ante. “Ok, materials then. Surely you like stuff? Physical comforts?”
“Yes, but what do you have to offer that I couldn’t get through someone better connected?”
“The benefits of someone who’s not worried about losing his job, as it’s not very lucrative, as you well know. This frees me of some of the more burdensome rules regarding say, fair trade?”
“Petty thievery?” Again she was amused.
“How so?” Now she was interested.
“My position affords me access to the more restricted regions of the station. It also puts me in contact with the other stations regularly. Placing orders is so commonplace that my communications are rarely monitored. And payment doesn’t come from me, but rather would be subsidized by the station.” Juid was unaccustomed to crime, but on more than a few occasions he had considered it as he toiled away in squalor.
It was enough for her. “So you can obtain black market goods by selling off our water supply?”
Juid felt a twinge of guilt. The finite resource was the very reason behind his ignored arguments to management, about resource acquisition and allocation. But he wasn’t naïve. Juid knew how the upper management lived. Surely a little extra wouldn’t be missed. “Keep it down. And yes, that is the proposal. Now what do you want?”
The woman thought some more. “Well now, this is a first. The opportunity to acquire without promising marriage and ‘favors’ to the station’s elite. You of course realize, should I accept, I in no way owe you any obligation to marriage. I’m off-limits to you.”
“You’ve made that perfectly clear, repeatedly.”
“I’m just wanting to be absolutely clear. You have a partner.” She raised her glass to seal the deal. Juid did likewise.
“Another thing—I’m going to need a bona fides.” He was pushing it.
“Shrewd, I like it. You’ll certainly make a better business partner than lover. Very well. The report can’t come from me, for obvious reasons, but your superior is having extra-marital relations with a certain Traci, to be specific. I mentioned watching her torment is amusing, but to be rid of her entirely would be useful as well. Use that as you will, either to oust or leverage him. Once rumor is confirmed, my competition will be lessened.”
“You don’t know about this, but there’s an exclusive brothel, staffed by Disgraced.”
“Yes, it does happen, whether through temptation, going too far to manipulate, or rape. These women are unfit for marriage, but still serve a useful purpose. Whether that’s right or not is not mine to debate. Traci was always loose—she’ll enjoy the employment.” The woman laughed.
It became clear that continuing down this path would ruin lives, but Juid was too curious to stop now. “One last question: What’s your name?”
“Roxanne, and now, this one’s free.” Under watchful eyes, she leaned over and kissed him, much to the loud jeering of Juid’s colleagues. Juid fumbled for words, which gave Roxanne the perfect physical and conversational exit. When Juid had regained his senses, Roxanne had already blended into the crowd.