Gasping for Air
by Sean Gill
I was interrupted, almost predictably, near the end of my task by two beefy Lawmen who had come to confirm what the Chief already knew: I had failed. I was handed a temporary Schmidt-Harveston-2E reassignment badge and told to report to the Chief in the morning. For now, I was to remain on Olympia-6 in the grocery department. Maybe I wouldn’t have to tell Jennie right away.
At the infirmary, the doc informed me that I hadn’t broken any bones. That was little consolation, because my hand had swollen to nearly twice its regular size and had turned quite black. He gave me some painkillers from his ration and told me to see him in a week; that is, if I hadn’t been reassigned yet. I took a few and felt marginally better, but it still felt as if fizzy acid-water were steadily billowing within the vessels of my hand. I wedged my bum hand inside my armpit in an attempt to quell the throbbing.
Walking home, I caught sight of the shuttle to Earth being prepared for its daily departure. There was a brief and wild flutter in my chest: we could sneak aboard and stow away! But the silly idea faded as swiftly as it came. It was impossible. Just another pipe dream, the kind that come quite easily to me when I was swabbing the deck and gazing out of a skylight at the stars, wondering if I’ve really been doing this for seventeen years.
I returned to Jennie, and she immediately cradled my hand, her eyes wide and her breathing heavy. She asked me what had happened, and I told her, except for the part about my becoming a Drudge, of course. I decided that the longer she didn’t know about it, the better. She could sense I was holding something back but didn’t push the matter. I felt terrible lying to her, even by omission, but as with the going rate for surgically extracted breasts, there were some things Jennie was better off not knowing.
We went to bed, and I cuddled with Jennie beneath the covers, careful not to touch anything with my bum hand. It rested above the covers, still visibly twitching in concert with the beating of my heart. I decided that I wasn’t going to get any sleep and resigned myself to a familiar flow of frightening thoughts I generally tucked away in the darkest corners of my brain.
As I held Jennie, I couldn’t help but think that I was no better than an animal, just clinging to another out of fear and sadness, a familiar little piece of evolutionary theater that’d been playing out on the altar of natural selection since the beginning of time.
Maybe the men and women who ran Schmidt-Harveston really did deserve to lay claim to us, like an Earth farmer would lay claim to his herd of cattle. I never claimed to know more than the average piece of livestock. Perhaps they even had these same ideas when they lay awake at night. Who knows?
I got these funny thoughts sometimes and didn’t know what to do with them, so instead I tried to focus on listening to the thrum of recycled air rushing in rhythmic gusts through our auto-vent. The last thing I remembered before drifting off was that I felt an insect rumbling of savage energy rising up inside of me, but I also felt a massive outpouring of love and devotion and Jennie’s warmth. It felt like my insides were emptied out, and these two forces bounced against one another inside of me like two magno-spheres in a hollow bulkhead, ricocheting in time with my throbbing hand.
The next morning, I fully intended to tell Jennie the whole story, but she looked so sweet and peaceful I didn’t want to wake her. After all, they weren’t going to reassign me yet; there was a veritable mountain of bureaucracy to be scaled before my status could officially change. I touched her cheek before I left. It was so soft and smooth and warm that it made me happy, I guess.
I decided to take the long way to work, zigzagging down to Level E and then back up again. A loud and soothing tone resonated throughout the passageway, indicating a stationwide announcement. The speakers crackled and the silence was cleft with the Chief’s severe intonations.
My hand began throbbing again; I had forgotten about it until that moment. I wondered what Jennie would think, waking up to the Chief without me. She’d probably assume the worst. Hell, she probably knew anyway. No use torturing myself.
The Chief began: “As you travel to work this morning, think responsibility! Responsibility of spending, responsibility of action, responsibility of thought! That will be all.” She signed off with a swift burst of static.
I usually tried to give the Thought of the Day its proper due, but today it felt all wrong, like the stale remnants of a joke told a few times too many. They’re suffocating us, I thought, murdering us and calling it suicide.
As I walked, my own fire grew. How can one wield power over another in this way? Who really ran Schmidt-Harveston, and what did they need in this life that was so important it required tearing me away from my Jennie? Somebody needs to go into their headquarters and smash them. Bust them up a little bit. Let them know what it feels like to suffer. I bet they don’t know what that’s like.
I looked down and realized that my good hand was clenched into a fist. I uncurled it and realized that coils of muscle in my abdomen were dangerously taut, too, so I relaxed them. I shouldn’t think so hard or so mean. It’s tough on the body, and I needed this body to be in tiptop condition, at least for a little while longer.
Just then, I saw Jennie across the main atrium. She was rushing to work, too. I ran up and caught her in a hug. Looking deeply into her eyes, I said, “There’s a chance they’re gonna take me away from you.”
I could see a tear welling up in her right eye, but she skillfully didn’t allow it to fall.
“I know,” she said.
I smiled. Of course, I thought.
“Is there truly no way out?”
“If there is, I don’t know it.”
“Oh,” said Jennie. Tears were welling up in both eyes now.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” she said. We both turned and went to work. I wondered if it was going to be the last time I’d ever see her. I wanted to cry but had to put on an even-tempered face for the Chief. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. I wished that some of Jennie’s dreams would come true. Not many had so far.
I strode into the docking bay with a swagger in my step; I would face the Chief with dignity. She and about a half-dozen Lawmen stood ominously in the center of the bay. The main airlock was closed. I stared at it, my mouth agape: my job should have entailed determining what food was still good and what had melted beyond recognition.
“Workman — or should I say Drudge — as you can see, I have sent the freezer ship away. There wasn’t a single packet of food that was salvageable.”
“But... but that’s impossible...” I moaned.
“And yet it happened,” said the Chief. She pressed her lips together until they turned white, as if she were trying to suppress laughter, or a scream. It finally gave way to a question: “What’s the matter with your hand, Drudge?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“It doesn’t look like ‘nothing’,” she announced gleefully. “Rogers, Thompson, take a look at the Drudge’s hand.”
Two lawmen stepped out of ranks and came toward me. One grabbed and held me from behind as the other haphazardly poked my bum hand. I winced in pain and, I’m not to proud to admit, I began to cry.
“You’re right, Chief, it doesn’t look like ‘nothing’,” said one of the Lawmen.
“How did it happen, Drudge?” asked the Chief. A peculiar expression appeared upon her face. I’d call it a parody of concern.
I tried to restrain my sniffles. I was relatively successful. “Last night,” I gasped. “While I was loading the freezer ship, the CrabLifter’s sensors were confused by the slush, and it pinned my hand.”
“You say you were using the CrabLifter... I wonder...” the Chief wondered aloud. There was something mischievous in her tone. “I wonder... perhaps you are no longer qualified to use the CrabLifter. I wouldn’t want you getting hurt. Maybe I should transfer you to another department. Or another station.”
“No, Chief,” I pleaded. “Please. It was a simple mistake. It was all the slush, it confused the sensors.”
“Well then,” said the Chief, “perhaps you’d like to demonstrate your competency with the CrabLifter for us all right now.” She smiled, and her teeth gleamed wolfishly under the fluorescent lamps of the docking bay.
“Chief,” I appealed, “it takes two hands to work the CrabLifter, and this one just needs a couple more days—” I cut myself off, unnerved by her narrowed eyes, “a couple more hours to recover before I can use the CrabLifter again.”
“You’ll do it now,” she said, motioning to the CrabLifter resting in the corner, “or you’ll be on the next shuttle out of here at” — she looked at her timepiece — “1100.”
I walked to the CrabLifter and depressed the ignition knob. I placed both hands on the steering column. The vibrations were playing hell with my bum hand. I clenched my teeth and tried to put it out of my mind. Pulling back on the column, I led the CrabLifter backward across the docking bay. So far, so good. I glanced to my left. The Chief and the phalanx of Lawmen stared back impassively.
“What would you like me to do with it?” I shouted. My voice echoed in the cavernous space.
“Lead it back and forth in a couple of wide corkscrews, then park it against the wall,” she declared, the mockery in her tone only amplified by the echo. Turning the CrabLifter around 360º was a feat of upper-body strength and endurance that would put my bum hand in excruciating pain even if I had to do it only once. Doing it several times could very well cause me to lose consciousness. Still, I intended to try.
“Come on,” the Chief taunted.
“Just a moment,” I said. I turned the CrabLifter sharply to the left. It took everything I had. Sharp, white points of light appeared before my eyes. I couldn’t feel my hand anymore. The sensation swept upwards, toward my shoulder.
I forced my eyelids open all the way, but blackness began to encroach onto my field of vision. No, dammit, don’t pass out now! I thought. I saw my bum hand dangling in space, the CrabLifter accelerating out of control. My feet sprinted backward to keep up.
I slumped over the steering column, not because I’d fainted, but in a last ditch effort to make the turn one-handed. I thought perhaps if I used my rib cage and my good hand in tandem, I could still make the turn.
I fought the blackness. Stay awake, dammit! There was an awful, searing pain in my back and in my gut. My head lolled backward and hit what felt like durasteel. I jolted my neck forward and quite suddenly, soberly, saw the extent of my predicament: I was firmly pinned, my body wedged between the steering column and the back wall of the docking bay.
Three Lawmen slowly made their way toward me from across the bay. I tried to break free, but I was jammed quite irretrievably. Feeling swept back into my limbs, and I flailed them about; I seemed to have avoided critical injury.
The Lawmen continued their approach. Bastards! All of them. Come to drag me off, away from my Jennie. I was trapped, but I was no animal. An animal could’ve gnawed off a foot to escape. I didn’t even have that choice. Couldn’t even sell a foot anymore. Schmidt-Harveston owned it. The hateful cowards! Their hands were outstretched. Just kill me now, you cold-hearted brutes, I don’t want to live another day after this!
I turned my head to discover I was pinned beside the docking bay’s main control panel. My heart began to fill with a kind of sharp and indescribable fear, like a child about to be caught misbehaving. And then my hands did all my thinking for me.
There was a terrible hiss and then a pop. The hiss came when I wrenched the airlock lever into the “on” position, and I think the pop was when my eardrums blew. The Chief and the Lawmen and a bunch of random bric-a-brac got sucked out into the void of space. Without suits, of course.
I suppose I should have been thankful the CrabLifter was so heavy; despite the suction, I remained rooted to the spot. I wrenched the lever to “off.” I understand there’s no noise in space, but I imagined the Chief hissing her last with a shameful pfffffft, like the air rushing out of a balloon.
I leaned my head back against the wall and figured that there was a pretty good chance my Drudge paperwork wouldn’t be filed properly in the ensuing kerfluffle. Pity. And I’d have bet you anything this whole business got written up as an “unexpected electronic malfunction.” I hear there’ve been a lot of those going around lately.
Copyright © 2014 by Sean Gill