Mr Li, the Odd-job Man
On the First Cropship of the White Crane, there were problems at the Waste Recycling Plant. This was not unusual. Today it was a dodgy output manifold, but there was always something leaking, clogged or broken; always something that needed fixing. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but Mr Li had no complaints. As far as he was concerned, there was never a dull moment. Mr Li liked fixing things. He could fix anything.
Here on the Long Yu, water was supremely precious, and what there was had to be collected, cleaned and purified so it could be used again and again — not only by the populace, but by the Emperor himself. The Waste Recycling Plant, overseen by Sergei Ma Gao Lei, the good Lady Ma’s eldest, was there to ensure that no water was ever wasted. But nothing is ever perfect, and over time the losses were significant.
As the Imperial Fleet crept through interstellar space, it seldom encountered much of interest. But they did chance upon a comet every once in a while, and when that happened a team of hydraulic engineers was sent out to investigate. If they found water-ice in sufficient quantities an Ice Harvester was flown in, and an Imperial Mining Team went to work. Finding water was a major event, something to be celebrated. There were few things more exciting.
Occasionally a Scoutcraft might return from a visit to a distant star, but that was rare. The last time it happened, Mr Li had been a much younger man — a boy, in fact. Even then, it had been all hushed up by the powers that be. It had only been a rumour. It had never been confirmed.
But if they found water, there was sure to be a party. After the last major discovery, there’d been a fleet-wide celebration in the form of a big public holiday. Everyone had made the most of it; the Emperor Donglong had not been known for his magnanimity. Things were better, thought Mr Li, now that his son was on the Throne. He would never have said it aloud, but he was glad the old bastard was dead.
Currently, Mr Li was halfway up a ladder. He was working on the faulty manifold, which was on the lower segment of a column on the secondary fractionating array. Much of the plumbing in this section was out of date, but as long as it kept working there was no point spending good money to replace it. Back in the old days, they had built things to last.
Mr Li was worried they might suddenly decide to modernise everything. If that happened, all his knowledge would become useless, and he would have no option but to retire. And what then, if something went wrong? He shuddered at the thought. He was not familiar with the latest equipment; supposedly it was a big improvement on the old stuff, but Mr Li was filled with suspicion that this was not the case. In his experience, the biggest problems were always caused by ill-conceived ‘upgrades’ to things that already worked well.
Shaking these thoughts from his mind, Mr Li reached into his overalls to fish out his glasses. Putting them on, he peered at the manifold, and noticed that one of the injectors had worked itself out of alignment. It was the sort of thing that was easy to miss unless you knew exactly what to look for — and even then you would have to look closely.
By itself, a misaligned injector assembly was a minor issue. But if left unattended it could lead to further problems in the system, some of which could be serious. Mr Li was likely the only person working at the plant with the knowledge and experience to spot a problem like this before it led to real trouble — and one of very few who knew how to fix it.
Lord Ma might have a rough idea what had gone wrong, but he would be unlikely to understand the precise details. And even if he had, he would have little chance of sorting out the problem himself. Ma was very skilled in his own way — Mr Li had no doubt the man was an excellent Chief Administrator — but his talents had never extended to actually fixing things that were broken. That was Mr Li’s job. He puffed up slightly with pride, then reached his hand behind the valve to adjust the assembly.
The injector was now positioned correctly; Mr Li was sure of it. But still he felt uneasy; a misaligned injector assembly would not account for the fault reported on this manifold. There had to be something else wrong. Mr Li inspected the column carefully, his head turning this way and that as he tried to trace the problem. Pulling a screwdriver from his belt, he used it to poke gently at the pipework. He kept a tight hold on the ladder, and contorted his body to get a better look.
Mr Li almost jumped out of his skin. For a moment he thought he was about to fall — but he didn’t. He closed his eyes in relief. He took a deep breath, and quickly composed himself before turning round.
“Ah!” Mr Li produced a cheerful, almost dopey-looking smile. “Hello, Mr Foo!”
“Safety first, Andrei.” Foreman Foo wagged a finger. “Ladders can be dangerous, you know. Don’t lean so much.”
Mr Li’s smile faded slightly. “Sorry,” he said. “I will try to remember.”
Foreman Foo Ba-Chu stared upwards, shading his eyes. “What’s going on here? Something wrong?” “The injector,” said Mr Li, gesturing with the screwdriver. “Worked itself loose, somehow.”
“Hm.” Foreman Foo thought for a moment. “Try tightening it up a bit.”
“Good idea!” Mr Li nodded vigorously. “Thanks, Mr Foo! I will!” His grin widened again.
“And remember to put that ladder back where you found it,” advised Foreman Foo. “Don’t leave it lying around, will you?”
“Oh, no, Mr Foo! Not me.”
“Good. Someone might trip over it.”
“That’s right, Mr Foo.”
“And make sure you check the rest of these columns,” said Foo, pointing. “Could be more than one with a problem.”
Mr Li chuckled. “These old things, eh? Nothing but trouble!” He saluted. “But don’t you worry, Mr Foo. I’ve worked with ’em me whole life — and they ain’t beaten me yet!”
“Alright, Andrei,” said Foo. “Thank you.” He nodded officiously. “Keep up the good work, eh?”
“Oh, yes, Mr Foo!” Mr Li beamed. “Always.”
“Good man.” And, satisfied at last, Foreman Foo continued on his way.
Mr Li waited until he was out of earshot before commenting. “Little prick,” he said, under his breath. “What is he for?” Then he returned his attention to the valve.
After a bit more poking, he discovered that one of the tiny air lines had come loose from its clip. Mr Li frowned. The air lines might be small, but they were important. The valve was flushed through with precisely timed bursts of high-pressure air; this helped prevent the accumulation of a greyish sludge of dead microbots. The lines weren’t delicate; they could be moved and bent and twisted around without doing them any damage. They had been designed that way. But they were thin and pliable, and Mr Li’s hands weren’t. In his youth they had been nimble, yes, but now they were knobbly, and — though he did not like to admit it — arthritis was beginning to set in. The more he worked, the longer he could stave off the worst of it, but it had started to take its toll.
Mr Li had no family — he was married to his job. But today he was eager to finish his work and get going. It had been an unusually tough week, and he was looking forward to his monthly appointment at Madam Wong’s. His time at the Lotus Blossom Palace was a chance to relax, to allow himself to be pampered a little by a true professional. There was nothing so relaxing as the company of a beautiful woman. Everyone, even someone as happy in his job as Mr Li, needed to relieve some tension once in a while.
He checked his watch and saw that he still had over an hour before the end of his shift. He breathed a sigh of relief. He should manage easily to finish this job and arrive at the Lotus Blossom Palace on time; he might even be a little bit early. Mr Li smiled. Part of the fun of visiting Madam Wong’s was the anticipation.
First things first. He took the air line in his hand and pressed a button with his thumb. It made a loud hissing noise. He released his thumb. The hissing stopped. That was good; there was nothing wrong with the air flow through the pipe. He took his hand away and let the line drop. It was still loose, but as it hadn’t interrupted the air flow, it was not a serious problem. It was, however, untidy. Mr Li reached up, hooked his forefinger round the clip to hold it firmly, then pushed. He heard a small click as the line slotted back into place. Right. That was that done, and much quicker than expected.
He had time to spare, so he decided to check the exchanger coil. Just below the filter cartridge was a small inspection window. Mr Li wiped a few specks of dust off with a cloth, then peered in through the glass. The coil was pretty worn, but it was alright for now. He made a note in his log to remind him to check it again in a week. It paid to keep an eye on these things.
As he returned his log and stylus to the big pocket at the front of his overalls, he thought he heard something. He had been about to climb down, but instinct told him to stop and listen for a moment. Mr Li inclined his head slightly. Straining his ears, he made out a low gurgling sound. It was all but unnoticeable — unless, of course, you knew exactly what to listen for.
He reached up to open a tiny flap at the top of the cartridge, that gave access to the sludge trap. A trickle of grey dust fell out, and Mr Li jerked his head back sharply, shutting his eyes. He cursed as he felt some of the debris land in his hair — but no harm was done.
Damn. The trap had clogged and run dry; the filter would now surely be contaminated with microbot dust. Ugh. He would need to replace the whole cartridge now, or the problems would never end. He peered closely at the filter cartridge. What type was it? Yes, of course — a number 23B. He reached down to rummage through his toolbox. He found a 22A, a 23A, a 22B… and finally a 23B.
He took out the 23B and held it close to the cartridge installed in the column. He compared the two carefully. Sometimes the labels on the boxes didn’t match their contents. Mr Li put this down to poor training of new workers at the manufacturing plant. Differences among the filter types could be very minor, but it was easy to tell them apart if you knew what to look for. This time, however, the label was telling the truth. Aside from wear and tear on the old one, the two cartridges were identical.
Mr Li returned the new 23B to its protective box and put it down carefully. Then he took a № 8 spanner from his belt and began to undo the bolts holding the old filter cartridge in place. As he did so, something caught his eye. His gaze had fallen on an adjacent fractionating column, a little to the right of the one he was working on. The columns should’ve been identical — but they weren’t. He checked again, and now he was sure of it: the filter on the other column was not a 23B. Its markings clearly identified it as something quite different: a 23C.
Mr Li groaned. What was going on here? He checked the filter on another nearby column; it too was a 23C. And suddenly he knew what had happened.
It was often possible to substitute one size cartridge for another. Mr Li had done it himself on occasion; the fit was imperfect, but it was close enough to serve as a temporary measure; sometimes a botched repair was better than no repair at all. But to just leave it in that state? For years? That, Mr Li could not understand.
He tutted to himself. This was typical. No wonder the sludge trap had been clogged. But at least he had found the root of the problem. He put down the spanner to rummage through his toolbox again, and soon discovered that he did not have a 23C. Somehow, Mr Li was not surprised. He tutted again. Now he would have to go down the ladder and all the way back to the depot to requisition a new 23C. There would be paperwork to do, and a wait while the droid went to fetch it from the warehouse. Mr Li would then have to sign for the new cartridge, before returning at last to complete the work. But after that he’d have to go back to the depot again, just to drop off the old 23B!
Mr Li sighed heavily, then closed his toolbox and tucked the spanner back into his belt before climbing down. He checked his watch again. If he left right now, and if the droid was not too busy, he might still finish the job in time to make his appointment at Madam Wong’s.
It was possible, he decided. But he would have to walk fast.
Originally published at Long Yu Stories.