Chapter 131 – Diego Soto
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Diego cranked on the ratchet until the final bolt holding the pump casing fell free, then pulled to separate the assembly. He ignored the sewage water that trickled out as he removed the pump components. As he'd suspected, the motor had shorted out when the rubber gasket leaked. Diego swapped in a brand new Earth gasket to replace the flat and cracked one. Then he cleaned out the motor, removing the . . . crud . . . from the copper windings and brush. Once it looked clean, he reassembled everything and bolted the casing back together.

When he turned the power back on to that unit, it began to pump once more from the primary treatment tank. Sewage maintenance. Not exactly the job he had in mind when he joined the Fleet. They didn't even have the decency to euphemize his job behind a 'sanitation engineer' title. His entire purpose in life for the past few months had been to ensure that the stuff people put down the toilets of the Angelship turned into potable water, fertilizer, and useful chemicals. Strangely enough, he didn't hate the work. He often hated the smells, frequently disliked the hours, and sorely missed the pleasure of interacting with women, but the day-to-day challenges of keeping a highly technical, highly critical life support process operating had a certain pride to it.

Diego weaved between bioreactor tanks, flocculation tanks, sedimentation tanks, filtration units, extreme UV water sanitizers, and about a hundred yards of pipes. Equipment packed the large warehouse, on both this floor and the one above. The heavier units lived on the ground floor, resulting in an inefficient system of pumps to move the various substances through the entire facility. He reached the door to the housing unit and stripped down to shower clean in water he had helped recycle. Dressed in a clean uniform, he climbed the steps to the kitchen.

Lawrence accosted him before he had taken two steps inside. "Why you always late for dinner, boy?"

"I told everyone I was going to fix that janky pump today."

"It didn't need fixed. You just turn off the switch, give it fifteen minutes, and turn it back on."

Diego rolled his eyes. "Am I the only one around here who has any pride in my job?"

"You're proud to be a sewer man? Diego, you got to fix your priorities. I made enough stuffed peppers for everyone. Chickpeas, squash, and spinach on the inside, with a tomato sauce. Someone took yours, though, so all you get is soup. Skinny boy like you needs calories, not extra time with pumps." Lawrence, once egg-shaped, had slimmed down considerably since Diego first met him. The heavy black man had not been popular when he first arrived. A combination of his squeamishness around sewage and his sexual orientation had placed a target on his back. Then Lawrence had started turning the eclectic ingredients in their kitchen area into gourmet meals and he had been accepted as part of the group.

Diego filled a bowl with vegetable soup and began to slurp it down. "Rice!"

"The things that excite us," Lawrence said.

At the table, Diego rushed through his meal while the other men shared stories of their previous lives. Mark told legends of his womanizing days. Quincy relived his high school sports days. Tommy told jokes in the first person -- it had taken Diego a while to realize that Tommy's stories were not actually autobiographical. Diego never had much to say when the whole group assembled. He had been a poor immigrant kid living in constant fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement while dreaming of becoming an astronaut. He had spent more time mowing yards than attending school, and while he somehow managed to pull off decent grades, he had not been able to swing a full ride to college. He had nothing to brag about, and he didn't want anyone's pity.

The door slammed open to admit Raddell, one of their supervisors. "Diego, you're with me."

Looking down at his half-eaten bowl of soup, Diego had to suppress a groan as he rose and followed his boss. They walked back down to the warehouse floor. "I fixed that pump," Diego said, hoping to shake Raddell off of having him do more maintenance. Being the favorite of a man like Raddell did not bring a lot of perks. In fact, all it brought was more work and more responsibility. There were some vague assurances that some day Diego could be boss of the facility. Left unsaid was the fact that the Angmari didn't trust the English employees and would never trust one to oversee a piece of critical infrastructure.

They ducked and squeezed and shimmied until they reached the exterior door. Diego almost tripped when Raddell opened it. He had not been outside since he arrived. "Where are we going?"

"You're being attuned, Diego."

"Uh . . . I'm being what?" He couldn't tell by the soft tone of Raddell if this was a reward or a punishment.

"It's a good thing, Diego. The Fleet is attuning all the English. Supervisors are able to recommend people for special consideration, so count yourself lucky, Diego."

Diego gawked at everything as they walked down the street. The light filament overhead, the walls to each side that made the street into a valley, the gentle slope of the street that made it rise in both directions until it ran into the wall at the edge of the section. Diego knew from his arrival that at least some of those section walls held passageways to the Angelship's zero gravity hub. They stopped in what looked like an abandoned cafeteria and Diego was signed in and told to sit with the rest of the English.

He almost tripped when he looked over and saw a few women mixed among the men. Girls. Before his feet could take a single step towards the cutest lady present, an invisible force pushed him butt-first onto a bench. An old man met his eyes and shook his head. The immediate conclusion Diego reached was that the man had used mind powers to move him. Which would be ridiculous. Or would it? It definitely would be impossible, a part of his mind insisted, so Diego decided not to think of the possibility again.

When another three individuals arrived and plopped down into seats, the old man began to walk a circuit of the room, touching each person in turn. Diego exchanged confused glances with the individuals to his left and right. Then the man passed Diego, patted his shoulder, and the world blinked.

As he returned to normal consciousness, Diego realized several things at once. First, chaotic threads of power coursed through his mind, singing to him in three harmonious voices. In his unexpected moment of zen, their subtle interactions vibrated out to touch everything in his perception. The beauty and depth of the experience inspired an awe in him greater than anything he had ever felt. The second thing he realized was that his mind had been influenced in some fashion, preventing him from concentrating on thoughts critical of the Angmari in any way. That influence no longer held sway over him, leading to his third realization. He had been enslaved. There had been no violence enforcing his servitude, but he had never had a choice. Not even over whether or not he felt angry at his treatment.

Before he could fully process everything happening to him, the power stuttered and died. Diego clenched his teeth and began to plot. He would sneak onto a shuttle and ride back to the surface to escape his captivity. He just needed to figure out a way to escape people who had real life powers without being caught. Then learn how to get to the shuttles. Then get onto one without being spotted. Then stay in hiding until it landed. Then sneak out without anyone stopping him. In other words, he was going nowhere.

The old man smacked his other shoulder on his way back and the power resurrected within Diego. This time, he didn't feel the intense connection to everything he had before, but there was a weak echo of it. He pulled the power deeper into himself, chasing the high of his first experience. And it died faster for his attempt to use it. Diego blinked in confusion. What is going on here, he wondered. Raddell had said he was receiving special consideration. Being attuned. Perhaps the Fleet had only enslaved him temporarily and would grant him vast powers now that he had demonstrated his worthiness. The idea sounded like optimistic bullshit even in his head.

Fortunately, he wasn't the only one with that thought. "What is going on here," a serious man asked.

"You are being attuned," the old man said. "When we are done here, please consider staying with the Fleet. There are decent people here who value the ideals of freedom and self determination. Our voices are often drowned out politically by the fanatical followers of Torrent Hafnym. Should enough of you join our ranks and gain citizenship, the numbers may swing in our favor. Remember then that Nara Kerrin orchestrated your special consideration. She is a good leader."

The serious man interrupted. "That doesn't answer my question. What are you doing to us?"

"All of the English aboard the Angelship are going to be attuned over the next several days by decision of the Executive Council. They are going to use sloppy group attunements. Nara Kerrin arranged for some of the most promising to receive an attunement from a paragon."

"This looks like a group attunement to me," a woman said.

"There is a group of you, certainly," the old man returned, "but there is only one of me. The three precursors I send into you are perfectly balanced. The group attunements will use multiple individuals and the precursor mix will be less than ideal. Many who could attune to use multiple talents will not do so. We are giving those of you in this room the best odds of success. Please be silent now and concentrate on the sensations within your minds. Try to hold on to all three of powers if you can. The benefits of multiple talents cannot be overstated."

After that exchange, the man refused to answer questions, insisting that they concentrate on their task every time he was engaged in discussion. The group settled down quickly. Diego lost interest in everything but the seductive lure of power he received in tiny capsules. It fillled him like a breath of air and then left him as abruptly. Again and again. The rhythm caught him up and he let himself float thoughtlessly in the experience.

People began to have reactions. They would exclaim or sigh or fall into a stupor and be escorted away one at a time. Soon, the group was halved. The old man muttered as he walked their length. "Important to not obsess with one solution. See them all. Own them all. Don't limit yourself."

More people left. Diego barely noticed. The three powers sang to him, a meaningless exultation. Not meaningless so much as prior to meaning, more fundamental than meaning. Knowing and categorizing and analyzing vanished into a mist of interwoven substances that permeated everything.

The power guttered out again. Vaguely, Diego realized only five of them remained with the old man. He let that thought fade away as he waited for the next gentle pat, which would bring back the power. It came as expected, and so did the unheard symphony. Diego closed his eyes and let himself go. The power faded from him, receding into the distance.

Diego's mind extended towards the direction he had sensed. The power roared to life within him.