Gasping for Air
by Sean Gill
I was a coward; I didn’t want to lose them both. The portly gentleman overseeing the sale laughed at me. He said, “The day is going to come, boy, where you’ll wish you’d sold the even pair. You’ll be desperate, more animal than man, and I will offer you no more than the 100,000 you have earned today. Surely you’ve looked back on things that you’ve done, maybe a few years ago, and thought, ‘God, what an idiot I was then. I wish I could do it over.’ Have you not?”
“I have,” I said. “But today you only get the half-sale.”
“You poor chump,” he said, his demeanor turning to one of furious pity. “You could get a ticket out of here if you’d sell them both.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m afraid.” The organ-middleman patted me on the shoulder.
“You got a lady?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
“If she’s willing to sell her breasts, I can get you a good deal. Maybe 80,000. Then you’d have enough to get out of here. I can get two of you out of here on one ticket, too. These things can be arranged. I got a lady on Saturnium-12 who’s willing to pay 80-85,000, even just for B’s.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My Jennie already sold hers.”
“Really,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that. What’d she get?”
“40,000,” I said.
“Dammit, my boy, that’s a joke. Come to me next time. You gotta bargain shop. They do. Sure, you get the cheapskates offering thirty, forty; but then you got the ladies who know what they want: they’ll put up seventy, eighty, one-twenty. The non-essential organ biz is no joke.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But I guess you understand more than anybody there’s no do-overs.”
“No,” I said. “But I guess Jennie does.”
“No, my boy, I know how you feel. That’s why I’m offering you the 500,000 for the even pair. No. You know what, how about 650?”
“No, I’m sorry. Only one today.”
“Ah, that’s too bad, my boy, I’m just trying to look out for you.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Anything, my boy.”
“How’s the eyeball trade?”
“Not too great, to tell you the truth. Problem is that synthetics can cure most ocular conditions these days. If you wanna do one eye, I can probably get you ten, fifteen thou. Most people don’t think it’s worth it.”
“What about ovaries?” I asked, feeling awful as I asked it. Jennie and I had never talked about it.
“Eh, it’s easier to get a surrogate mother. I’d say 3,000, tops.”
“Why do the testes cost so much more?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “these guys spend their whole lives on top of the world. One day, there’s not enough lead in their pencils, and even drugs aren’t doing it for them. I don’t know if you can quite imagine what it’s like to lose a human faculty like that, a God-given right, if you know what I mean. They start to go mad, feeling like eunuchs or something. You know what a eunuch is?”
“No,” I said.
“Ah, well. Best not to dwell on these things. You ready?”
“Yes,” I said. I went under the knife then and there. When I came home I held Jennie and I cried and she cried and we held each other.
That was two years ago, and the money was running low once again. With the latest increase, we probably had a year or so before we — or rather I — had to check out the market again. You see, after learning that Jennie had been swindled over the sale of her breasts, I vowed that she would never know, never see the current price-lists, ever again. I’d make the trips down to Level C and find out what was in demand.
So one morning on my way to work, I decided to take a detour down to C to get a jump-start on a difficult process. It seemed that arms were now in high demand, but I really needed both of mine to work the CrabLifter. You could get 120,000 quasars for an arm.
The biggest surprise, however, was the price of eyes: they’d skyrocketed to 90,000 or more. At first I was puzzled; you could fix almost any eye disorder these days for under 10,000. After asking around, I discovered that it was in vogue amongst the well-to-do to implant a third eye and the accompanying ocular nerve into their foreheads. Supposedly the act of seeing through three eyes, one of them a foreign, unfamiliar one, produced a continuous feeling of euphoria.
I thought about it for a while and decided that I could probably still do my job with one eye. That could buy us another two years; two more years of my Jennie, smelling her, kissing her, holding her in the darkness. But that was a year away from now. I had plenty of time to consider the prospect.
I arrived to a clamor of blaring klaxons and flashing panels. I knew what they meant because I’d been drilled on it before: the freezer units had failed and the refrigeration ones were well on the way. At the storeroom entrance, a tall blonde Lawman stood, arms akimbo.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“The coolant coils sparked out, and so did the backups,” he explained, with a peculiar detachment. “You’ll have to take all the perishables off the store floor and put them into the big freezers.”
“The main units haven’t failed yet?”
“No, they have. But we can seal them, so it’s a temporary fix.”
“Is a freezer ship on the way?”
“Twelve hours. Then you have to load everything from the main freezers into the freezer ship. That is, if it all hasn’t thawed already. Now report to the Chief.”
I nodded and dashed around the corner to the docking bay. The temperature situation is always a delicate one, and I don’t fully understand it. It seemed to me that we could dangle the food pallets on cables outside into space to keep them cold, but I’m not an astrophysicist, I’m a stock boy.
I was sorting this out in my head when I came across the Chief, flanked by two more Lawmen. The Chief was wearing her standard uniform with accentuated shoulder-pads, and her faux-raven hair appeared to be encased in some sort of form-retaining spray. She pursed her lips for a moment. Blue, ice-pick eyes bore into my own, and I instinctively looked downward. Her demeanor was frighteningly composed; the beast, which we both knew resided within, was opting not to show its true face.
“I could raise my voice to you, I could wave my arms about, I could gnash my teeth. But I don’t think it would do any good. No more good than beating a dog who doesn’t — who can’t — understand what he’s done. We’ve suffered a setback here, Workman, and the bottom line is that you’re to be held accountable. Accountable to the point of Drudgery.”
“Chief,” I said, “this situation is the result of mechanical failure. The issue at hand is one of logistics, not human error.” Actually, I didn’t say that at all. I could only muster a “Chief... uh... sorry.” She eyed me with slight amusement.
“I hope it turns out all right, Workman,” she said. She moved to tap me on the shoulder, but then, thinking better of it, dismissed me with a smirk. “I hope it turns out all right.”
I scrambled, clearing the shelves and completely filling the main freezer unit. The temperature had been holding steady at 4º F when I began, now it had inched its way up to 16º. It was a waiting game now, and it all depended on when the ship arrived. It hardly seemed fair after all we’d been through, that my and Jennie’s happiness could depend on the lateness of a freezer vessel.
Once I’d caught my breath, I sat down and got to thinking. It’s often difficult for me to concentrate on just “thinking.” Sometimes I’ll play with my earlobes or run my fingers across my scalp, moving the little prickles of hair back and forth. After a while, the mental circle and square shapes start sliding across the grooves and into the right slots, if you know what I mean.
Then it finally hit me. My mind doesn’t always work as fast as I’d like. Jennie had been hearing some mess-hall gossip that the Chief had been going from department to department, looking for excuses to punish people, or so they said. “Inefficiency,” “dereliction of duty,” and things like that.
There had been suspicious happenings and a lot of major snafus going on all over the station. A lot of incidents were being written up as “unexpected electronic malfunctions.” Maybe the Chief even had her men blow the freezer coils themselves; maybe, deep down, the Chief wanted all of us to be drudges; maybe the freezer ship was going to be late, and maybe it was going to be late on purpose.
My face reddened. The idea had a certain clarity to it. I was angry, but I couldn’t say at who, precisely. Obviously, the Chief came to mind, but it was so much bigger than that. It came at me with pressure on my chest and forehead, and there was a ringing in my ears, like the molecules of recycled air swirling around them were screaming, but silently.
I checked the temperature again: 22º. Maybe I’ll make it, I thought. But the feeling in my guts spoke to a different truth.
Six hours later, the ship arrived. I waited for the familiar hiss of the docking tube-seal and wrenched the airlock lever into the “on” position. The hatch door flew open, the air pressures equalized, and the empty interior of the ship’s cargo hold was revealed. A few crewmen emerged and strolled past me with barely a glance. They offered no help and immediately shuffled off toward the mess hall.
I tried to focus on the job instead of the consequences. The freezer temp was 43º and rising as I began rearranging the pallets. I maneuvered the CrabLifter with incredible swiftness. I think the idea was that I’d load everything onto the ship, hope that it would refreeze, and then clean up any mess left behind.
As luck would have it, the food toward the center of each pallet-cube had not yet thawed, but the items furthest out soon began sputtering and dripping icy water onto the floor of the docking bay. After a few pallets, I was running the CrabLifter through a thick glaze of slush and gravy and melted ice cream.
Though the CrabLifter didn’t depend on traditional traction, its sensors became confused and it began to buck erratically as I made my turns. My feet were sliding, too, and soon my socks were soaked with the liquefied detritus. It was so cold I was losing the feeling in my toes, but I soldiered on. There were only about twenty or so pallets left, and I was beginning to entertain the possibility that I’d get away with it.
With about five loads to go, I was turning the corner from the freezer corridor to the docking bay when my foot slipped in the rapidly accumulating sludge. At this very moment, the CrabLifter shuddered and the steering column disobediently spun ninety degrees, smashing my right hand against the durasteel wall. As I let go with my left, it quickly spun in the opposite direction and became still, unpinning my hand.
I plunged into the muck and some of it splashed into my mouth; consequently, my first reaction was to ignore the numbing sensation rising from my hand and up my arm, and instead focus on expelling the assortment of gruesome flavors that presently tormented my taste buds. I hacked and trembled and clutched my hand, which was now alight with hundreds of fiery pinpricks.
Composing myself, I stood upright. There were only a few pallets left, so I proceeded slowly, nursing my hand and occasionally pausing my work to dip it into the gelatinous gunk. The cold dulled the pain. When I’d finished, I began operating the Hydro-Vac one-handed, but the scope of the cleanup was just too big.
Copyright © 2014 by Sean Gill