Bobbie Jo wouldn’t know class if it crawled into her knockoff Prada and went home with her. Of course, along with adopting ersatz haute couture, she made everyone call her Roberta after graduating from Einstein University in Sagan City. But a deal was a deal, and since her home colony world Drake had paid for her free ride tuition to Einstein, including passage to and from Epsilon Eridani, she was obligated to return to what she now called “a provincial backwater wasteland.”
“Welcome back, Bobbie Jo.” Omer Thorpe was the President and CEO of Biosynth, the world’s one and only bioengineering company, and they desperately needed skilled medical engineers. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.”
“I can’t say it’s good to be back Omer, but for the next ten years, I’m yours. Oh, and please call me Roberta.” They shook hands, and although the Grandfatherly man was impeccably clean, she still felt like she was touching something that came out of the rear end of a rat.
“Oh, you’re just spoiled by all that high life on Campbell. I hear Sagan City is quite a gem compared to any of our local communities.” He continued smiling and winked at her. He’d been teasing with Bobbie Jo ever since she was in pre-school. Everyone in Tysonville knew each other and always had since it was founded three generations ago.
“You have no idea.” She looked around the lobby, which was as bright and modern as the lobbies of any corporation she’d visited on Campbell, but after six years on the premier colony planet, coming back home was a major let down, coloring her every perception of life on the fourth planet orbiting Tau Ceti.
“Well, come on. I’ll take you over to HR. You remember Betty Shultz, right? Anyway, she’s the HR Manager now. We’ll have you sign the usual new hire forms and confirm the contract you signed way back when, then get you settled in the research lab.”
She sashayed after the sexagenarian, he in his perpetual business casual, and her in her fraudulent Riccardo Tisci gown with matching hat and shoes, overdressed for the President’s gala on Campbell, or even the nearly legendary Earth.
“Hi there, Bobbie Jo.” She’d grown up with Gloria Floyd, the receptionist who waved to her from the front desk.
“Hello, Gloria.” Her tone could have flash frozen molten steel.
“Nice hair color. I don’t remember you being a blond.”
Bobbie Jo ignored the snarky comment about her dye job. There were too many boring brunettes in her family tree and her original social circle, and she’d be damned if she’d go back to being a plain, country bumpkin tomboy.
“Here we are.” Omer held the door open for her, and strolling in, she saw the matronly HR director stand and walk around her desk. “Welcome home, Bobbie Jo. We’re real glad to have you back.”
“Oh, it’s Roberta now, Betty,” Omer replied. “She’s a graduate of Einstein, so she needs some respect.”
Of course, Omer was teasing her again. He still didn’t take her seriously. That would all change once she impressed him with her research.
“Yes, I’m happy to see you again, Roberta.” Betty put just enough pause between “again” and “Roberta” to communicate displeasure.
“Thank you.” Bobbie Jo wasn’t there to become re-acquainted with everyone she’d known since childhood. He was there to serve her time before returning to Campbell and getting paid real money.
“Just buzz me when you’re through and I’ll come back to escort her to Lab B.”
Bobbie Jo spun on one foot to face the older man. “Wait. I thought I’d be in Lab A. The whole point of our contract was for me to work on improving the Genome Process so we could better adapt future generations to Drake’s biosphere.” She hadn’t meant to say “we,” since she had no intention of claiming Drake as home again, but it popped out like an ugly pimple.
“Now, Bobbie…um, I mean Roberta, you’ve got to get your training somewhere.”
“Training? I interned at the Mendel Clinic for two years.”
“It’s part of your contract. Betty will go over it with you. We reserve the right to assign you to any tasks we deem suitable.”
Bobbie Jo clenched her jaw tight, and then a thought occurred to her and she relaxed. “You’re the boss, Omer. I’m sure I’ll impress whoever you’ve got in Lab B. In six weeks, I’ll be the one doing the training.”
“Well, anything’s possible,” he said kindly if condescendingly. “I’ll come back when you’re through here.”
It took about half an hour of complete tedium to fill out the necessary forms. After finishing the contractual review, including the fact that for the next decade, she was the indentured servant of Omer and Biosynth, Betty put her hand on Bobbie Jo’s forearm. “You really shouldn’t go out of your way to antagonize people. I know you don’t want to be seen as just another hometown girl, but you’ll get along better if you ease up on the Scarlett O’Hara bit.”
She wouldn’t have any idea what “Gone With The Wind” was, except, she’d spent too many sleepovers at Betty’s house when she was little, and the movie was her daughter April’s favorite. Bobbie Jo must have seen it a thousand times, and unbidden, pleasant memories percolated up from her last sanctuary of nostalgia.
“I came back because I’m supposed to.”
“Yes, I know, dear.” She removed her hand having felt the muscles in Bobbie Jo’s arm tense at her touch. “But ten years is a long time, and you’ll be happier if you’re working with friends and not enemies.”
She stood. “Thank you. Are we done here?”
Betty picked up her desk phone’s receiver and punched in four numbers on the keypad. After a short wait, she uttered, “She’s ready, Omer. Yes, thanks.” Then looking up, she added, “He’ll be right over.”
Bobbie Jo suffered through a week of orientation in Lab B. Tracey Rodriquez had been her older sister’s best friend from preschool through college, and still made her feel liked a picked on little kid, even though she didn’t say or do anything untoward.
She spent six months training in Lab B, and even though everyone finally got used to calling her “Roberta,” she discovered an unpleasant realization.
It was shocking to be told she didn’t know everything about genome engineering. Roberta bristled every time Tracey corrected her work, and what made it worse is that every time, she was right.
They were sitting together on the sofa in Tracey’s office while the rest of the team was out to lunch. “Roberta, you know as well as anyone that humanity’s base genome evolved to Earth environment standards, and we’re trying to adapt it to a planet that is over four Earth masses and receives 1.71 times as much stellar radiation.”
She hated being lectured, especially about something everyone in the world knew, but she had to put up with it. If Tracey didn’t certify her for Lab A, not only could it end her career, but Omer might exercise his option to fire her and demand a full repayment of all funds. Her grandchildren would still be paying off a debt that big.
“We’ve made great progress in the last seventy-five years, but our mortality rate is still too high, especially for newborns.”
She blushed in shame, remembering how Mama had lost one little brother in stillbirth and another to SIDS. It’s what made her want to become a bioengineer in the first place. Bobbie Jo had been so full of dreams back then.
“I know.” For the first time since she’d returned to Drake, she sounded like Bobbie Jo and not Roberta, contrite rather than arrogant.
“Look, you’re smart and talented. I’ve seen your transcripts and progress reports and they’re off the charts. If anyone can help solve the Genome Process, it’s you. But you’ve got to get your head out of the clouds of Campbell and back down solidly on Drake. If you do what I think you can do, in ten years, you’ll write your own ticket.”
“It’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“What have you always wanted? To write your own ticket?”
Bobbie Jo closed her eyes and the vision of Sidney’s tiny coffin being lowered into the cold dirt rose to the surface. First Sidney, and then a year later, Austin. Mama and Papa never tried having anymore children after them. She had only been eight years old at the time.
Her face felt wet, and she realized she was crying. Then she felt Tracey’s arm go around her.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…I didn’t think after all these years…I’d still feel like this.”
“Like…like when my baby brothers died.”
Tracey pulled her into a hug and Bobbie Jo sobbed on her shoulder. For a few minutes she could only hear the sounds of crying and the air conditioner blowing a cool breeze through the vents.
“It’s why you became a bioengineer. It’s why everyone does here. We’ve all lost someone, usually more than one. I remember when my Mom lost my baby sister, she cried herself to sleep for weeks. I lost my Grandpa just two days before his 50th birthday.”
Bobbie Jo sat back and Tracey pulled a tissue from the box sitting on her desk a few feet away. The younger woman wiped her face and eyes. “I’ve been such an ass, haven’t I?”
“Oh yeah, you’ve been that, but the first ten seconds after Omer brought you into the lab, I figured out why.”
“It’s been six months and you didn’t call me on it?”
“You’d have just dug your heels in if I had. You needed to face up to your grief all on your own.”
“I thought…I thought if I acted like Ms. Hoity Toity, like I didn’t care, that I wouldn’t feel hurt anymore.”
“Tell me the truth. Do all Einstein graduates act like that?”
Bobbie Jo chuckled. “No. Actually most of them were pretty nice once they got to know me. Only the real jerks kept teasing me for being a provincial.”
“So you modeled Roberta on being a jerk.”
“I became my own worst enemy, didn’t I?”
“And everyone else’s.”
“I suppose I should apologize.”
“Not to me. I understand. But there are a few people who might appreciate it.”
“You mean like everyone else.”
“It’ll take some time, but once you loosen up, they will all figure it out.”
“I really appreciate you being so understanding. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. We Tysonville girls have to stick together. Hey, Betty’s having movie night over at her place. How about we meet there after dinner. I’m sure April would enjoy seeing you again, the real you I mean.”
“Oh God, don’t tell me it’s ‘Gone With The Wind’ again.”
They both laughed. “No, it’s her husband Fred’s turn to choose.”
“‘The Wizard of Oz’ it is, then.”
It took another generation for Drake’s mortality rate to drop from 33 percent to under five, primarily because of Bobbie Jo’s research. After her ten-year contract elapsed, she stayed on at Biosynth as Chief Researcher in Lab A. She’d never left Drake again.
I wrote this for First Line Friday hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. As you likely know, the idea is to craft a poem, short story, or other creative work based on the first line, “Bobbie Jo wouldn’t know class if it crawled into her knockoff Prada and went home with her.”
I wanted to create an arrogant but redeemable character, but I also wanted to write science fiction. I know that there are rural communities that pay for one of their citizens to go to college and medical school on the condition that they then return and become their town doctor for a certain period of time. I based the arrangement between Bobbie Jo and Biosynth on that.
As it turns out, Tau Ceti, a mere 11.9 light years from Earth, is the star most like our own, so I chose that as the sun for my colony world Drake. I made Epsilon Eridani the home of another colony planet, and checking, I found out the two are 5.45 light years apart.
What I wrote about Drake or Tau Ceti e is accurate, which would make it a pretty unpleasant place to live. I left out the fact that it’s believed to have an average surface temperature of 68 C or 154 degrees F.