THE STALK [An Excerpt]
Jack stood at the edge of the Hole with nothing but a guard rail between her and a vast chasm of emptiness. She heaved a bag of dirt up and emptied it over the edge; it poured out like a waterfall, each clump getting smaller and smaller until she couldn’t see it any more. Then she dropped the plastic in after it, watching the white float away, down into the endless blackness the Hole.
She wiped the sweat off her brow and turned to grab another bag; then she shrieked as a holographic form of a woman in a tightly fitting skirt and blouse appeared, startling her.
“Do you need the perfect gift for your child, spouse, parent, or friend?” it asked, too cheerfully. “Consider buying a four-foot replica of the Stalk, a gorgeous, majestic reminder of the technology that brings life to the loyal citizens here on Jord!”
“Go away, dammit!” Jack growled, mumbling her deactivation code, “B1143.” The hologram winked out of existence as she turned toward the foreman’s platform, and yelled, “Boss! That’s the fifth holo today!”
“One of the dampeners is broken,” Faith yelled back. “You’re just going to have to deal with it! Get back to work!”
Jack glanced at the time and then smiled. She only had ten minutes left—though, if another holo appeared proclaiming the wonders of the Stalk before she got out, she might just jump into the Hole like so many other Diggers before her had.
She tossed four more bags of dirt into the Hole, not for the first time wishing they could just use hover carts like everyone else in town. Unfortunately, the dampeners did more than just block out the stupid holos—they also made it impossible to use any hover technology within a fifty-foot radius of the Hole. Her watch beeped, and she headed toward the locker room. Faith was waiting for her inside, wearing high heels and enormous gold earrings with red LED-beads in the center.
“We’ll have the holos sorted out before you get back,” Faith said, looking down at her clipboard.
“What do you mean, ‘by the time I get back’?” Jack asked, a feeling of dread growing in the pit of her stomach. She spun around to look at her locker; three green bulbs glowed just over the door. Three beans. That meant…
“You’ve been selected to do a day at the Stalk,” Faith said without smiling. “Remember, you’re representing all of us here at the Hole. We want the funders to understand that what we do is vital work in the community, and that we love doing it.”
“I don’t love it,” Jack said bluntly, yanking her locker open and pulling out her backpack. Her wristband beeped as her hand passed under the beans; three green lights appeared on it. If she tried to run away, they would be able to track her down and make her go to the Stalk anyway, plus she'd probably have to go to jail. “I dump dirt into an endless chasm of darkness for a living. What’s to love about that?”
“Pretend you do or you’re fired.” Faith strode away, heels clicking against the tiled floor, bracelets jangling.
“Won’t matter if I’m dead,” Jack muttered.
Petrov burst into the locker room, followed by Shelly.
“Drinks tonight?” he asked, before skidding to a halt. He looked at Jack’s locker, then at her face. “You got three beans?” he gasped.
“Three beans?” Shelly echoed.
“You know what they say,” Petrov said. “Don’t drink the water, don’t eat anything they give you—”
“Or breathe their air if you can avoid it,” Shelly interjected.
“—don’t read their pamphlets, submit to any scientific testing, don’t take any pills they give you—”
“Petrov!” Jack interrupted. “It’s going to be fine. I’m going to be fine.”
“That’s what Steven said,” Shelly reminded her.
“And Paulie,” said Petrov.
“Yolanda,” said Shelly.
“Robby, Tonk, and Meri.”
“Fink and Hazel.”
“It’s an 80% jump rate,” Petrov added.
“I’m not going to jump into the Hole,” Jack said, exasperated. “I’ve spent years feeding that thing—I’m not going to feed myself to it too.”
“They all said that.” Shelly had tears in her eyes.
“You were one of my favorites.” Petrov stepped forward and wrapped her in a hug, his sweaty stench filling Jack’s nostrils.
“I can’t believe you got picked!” Shelly wailed, throwing her arms around both of them.
“Okay, that’s enough.” Jack wiggled her way out from the group hug and glared at them. “I’m not going to die. I’ll be back.”
“That’s what they all said,” Petrov said with finality, shaking his head. “We’ll toast to you tonight.” He raised a hand in the air dramatically.
“Fine.” Jack rolled her eyes and grabbed her bag. “See you all the day after tomorrow.”