Gasping for Air
by Sean Gill
The cost of living went up again this week. It amounts to 5,400 quasars per month for the basic amenities: food, water, 7’x6’ living quarters, and the standard EE-37 utility package, the most essential component of which is air. My parents, who emigrated from Earth sometime before I was born, insisted that just thirty-odd years ago it was free to live and breathe here as long as you logged the sufficient man-hours, but they only spoke of this in private.
The official line is that while the Schmidt-Harveston Corporation presently operates six Ceres-class inner-system space stations, was formerly a leading energy engineering company, and prior to that built railroads across undeveloped regions of Earth, it has not been and never will be a “charity.”
On principle, none of this bothers me much; I’ve worked a standard seventy-five hour work-week since my thirteenth birthday. The only problem is that the rising costs are now, quietly, becoming impervious even to creative forms of income. Leaving the station itself is cost-prohibitive as well: it’s 150,000 quasars for a single one-way ticket. I’ve only been near that sort of money once, and that was some time ago. Allow me to explain.
I’ve worked for the grocery department for seventeen years, more than half my life. When supply-bearing spacecraft dock with the station, I unload the pallets of food and sundries into the docking bay. I operate an anti-grav CrabLifter4700, so-called because of its hydraulic pincers, which are capable of lifting 4,700 pounds of material.
It is not a complex device; its only controls are forward and backward, and they are situated at the end of a four-foot titanium steering column, which I use to maneuver the durasteel beast. After seventeen years, I’ve become quite skilled with it, and I can unload a standard ninety-pallet shipment into the proper refrigeration and freezer hatches in under two hours.
Of course, that’s just the beginning of my job: I spend the majority of my time unpacking the pallets and stocking the Schmidt-Harveston shelves with provisions, but naturally getting a chance to use the CrabLifter4700 is the highlight of my day. For this I am paid 3,250 quasars per month, a great deal less than today’s 5,400 “Subsistence Fee” and less still than the previous fee, which was 4,800. In fact, things have been vaguely desperate ever since the Subsistence Fee surpassed my salary three years ago.
In many ways, however, I am fortunate. I live in a special 14’x12’ double unit, which I share with my girlfriend, Jennie. We applied for it via lottery five years ago, and when we won, well, I must say that it was one of the most exhilarating days of my life. There are only fifty double units on a station with over 2,500 inhabitants.
Individually, we have no more space than anyone else — except for the Chief or the dozen Lawmen — but the added bonus is, of course, that we get to spend plenty of time together. We’ve even managed to work it so that Jennie’s seventy-five hours a week waiting tables at the Lawmen’s Mess Hall mostly coincide with mine at the grocery. It nearly shames me to say it, but we have it way better than a lot of people I know. I am permitted to hold the woman that I love in a room of our own design; every night is a gift.
If, at the end of the month, you can’t afford the Subsistence Fee, you have two options:
The Lawmen stuff you in an airlock without a suit and eject you. Your blood boils, and you get schlerped up by the vacuum of space, shortly after which you die.
You become a Schmidt-Harveston-2E, also known as a “Drudge.” You have no rights, and you exist at the Chief’s beck and call: she can send you to any station or planet she pleases, assign you to any job, anywhere.
I’d have become a Drudge long ago if not for Jennie, because we’d most definitely be split up. The Chief has a bit of a sadistic streak when it comes to Drudges or anything else. She would certainly read our files, see our romantic affiliation, and then send us as far, far away from each other as possible.
If that weren’t the case, being a Drudge would be my dream; I’d never again have the Subsistence Fee lurking behind me in the darkness, snapping at my heels. You see, I don’t mind the work, it’s the uncertainty that worries me.
Three years ago, when the Subsistence Fee surpassed both of our salaries, we didn’t know what to do. We started logging extra hours, but that wasn’t always an option. We sold off anything of value: our 3D-R set; an ancient, whirring timepiece that my grandfather had given me; and a small, silver vanity mirror that had belonged to Jennie’s family. But naturally, hawking our stuff was only an option so long as we had stuff to hawk.
There’s a mammoth 3D-R screen down on Level C that displays job listings, personal ads, upcoming events, shipment dates, and the like. I discovered that there was an emerging market for “Non-Essential Body Parts.” I’m sort of dumb about this stuff sometimes, so I was extremely excited about it. I was thinking tonsils, wisdom teeth, extra lengths of intestine, I don’t know. The sorts of organs that you don’t ordinarily use or even think about.
But it turns out that the need is based on a specific demand. A rich lady on Hesperus-17 was willing to pay 40,000 quasars for Jennie’s breasts, the genuine article being preferable to synthetics. We discussed it and I discouraged it, but Jennie’s will was made of iron. She wanted to take the plunge.
I went over the ads, but all the other offers were for essential organs. I kept waiting for a single kidney or lung or eye to pop up, but none did. Even a skin graft. I wouldn’t mind losing some of that; skin is skin.
In the end, Jennie’s mind was made up. It was her choice, after all. They scooped them out of her, made the transplant, and we had the 40,000 the next day. Jennie laughed and Jennie cried. I felt like an ass, myself. She never broke down, though. Not completely. That would have been impossible. There never was a little sweet thing with so much determination.
I never again saw her without her clothes on. With the lights on too, I mean. I touched her there only once, by accident. A concaved space, with knobbly scars. I was the one who cried then. I never felt such shame. It was not for her, this was my own shame.
I wondered how it felt to see little pieces of yourself appearing in the bank account: words not made flesh, but flesh made words. “Forty-thousand.” It’s not a very long word, not for all the pain she felt and tried to hide. And to see it dribble, steadily, out of the account like dishwater down a drain... all the time becoming smaller words, smaller numbers. “Twenty-thousand.” “Eight-thousand.” A year later it was running thin, so very thin. “Three-thousand.” “Zero.” Now there’s a word that communicates its true worth. What emptiness. My Jennie.
I kept poring over the ads, hoping for the right one to crop up. I could redeem myself. Something had to be done. I felt my insides ripping themselves up, the acids dissolving themselves, a raging ocean of guilt and pain. What if it was an ulcer? My parts might not be good for much longer if I continued on this way. Maybe being a Drudge was better than this, but I still had my Jennie, so I couldn’t really complain.
I answered an ad concerning testicles: a rich man on Vesuvius-24 needed a pair, immediately. His had failed after eighty-four years, and he couldn’t go a day without them, not a single day. As I arrived at the organ replacement office, they made the deal very clear: 100,000 for a single testis, 500,000 for the pair.
Copyright © 2014 by Sean Gill