There once was a time people could walk in the open until they were blue in the face. I wonder if they would have thought it would be so true today as I peered into the smog about me, carefully inhaling my own limited air supply.
It was my own fault really. I thought I’d bought enough unpolluted air in my tank to get me this far. It must have been the exertion and the sampler was registering pink, I was now getting a heavy mix of carbon dioxide as well. At least the monoxide filter was working…so far. I doubt if I could afford a blood transfusion if I got too much of that shit in my blood.
I didn’t have much choice. Do I die from dioxide poisoning or do I vent it and take in some polluted smog and hope that doesn’t kill me instead? No choice at all. The Free Airian was still some way off. I would have to hope that I could get there in time. I could hardly breathe vacuum. I committed and leaked some outside air into my mask and then checked the nav to ensure I stayed on route. Getting lost now would be fatal and with night falling soon, visibility would be really screwed more than during the smoggy day. The air tasted foul, even through the mask.
If I breathed slowly, maybe I could make the best use of the air without taking in too much toxins. Death now or later. Never a good choice. Ever the optimist, the longer I could keep going, the better. I would have to update my equipment sooner or later, but it was costing me more than an arm and a leg just for the oxygen these days and the price wasn’t getting any cheaper. If I found another job, it would eat into how much air I could buy, assuming I paid off my debt first. Bastards! I looked down at my hands and my fingers were slowly turning blue. I hoped that was cold and nothing else. Maybe keeping angry would keep me going. Burn some adrenalin, even if I had no energy to run.
Was my fingers turning blue from a cyanide derivative or the effects of reduced oxygen? No choice. I just had to keep going. Fall in the streets and you would end up a feast for hungry rats. How they could live in this shit was anyone’s business but they seemed to survive anywhere. Them and the cockroaches. Shame they wouldn’t eat each other but probably showed signs of good taste. Neither was a good choice but it urged me to keep going.
My breathing was really getting horse. I’m surprised I can even think straight. Maybe I’m hallucinating. Maybe I’m only fantasising that I’m walking. Maybe I’m flat on my face in the gutter, just imagining all of this before I die and get eaten by the vermin. If this is death, what’s taking me so long to die? Anything for a gentle release although chances are, it would be a rasping death trying to take in what oxygen wasn’t bonded to this wheezing atmosphere.
Then I saw it. A flashing light. I plodded ever more slowly towards it. If I wasn’t dead then let it be hope that there was no queue to go inside. That would be a real killer. Too many people. Not enough fresh air to go around and not enough energy to push to the front of the queue. ‘Course, if I did that, I’d only be pushed to the back.
Stale air. Gods, I wanted to vomit but in this mask that would be fatal. Not just from filling the mask and filling the air tubes but swallowing it back down and clogging my lungs.
There was no one waiting at the inviting door. I nodded thanks at the security camera as I pushed my way through the door airlock and waited for the air to be changed, as they also scanned me, venting my tank as I did so to remove the foul mess I had used to get here.
Ah! Clean air. My lungs fed on it hungrily before my gut reacted and I spewed up into a waiting bin. Too much of a good thing. There goes my last meal. I was being spoilt. Better in here than insider with the other people and sitting embarrassed in a corner. But then, I bet they all said that as well as the vac cleared the bin.
I wouldn’t have gone out today except that I needed more oxygen to supplement my nitrogen feed. Conserve my tank. You didn’t need nitrogen to breath but you certainly couldn’t live off of pure oxygen. Too flammable. There was some smartass in an another apartment block who thought he could after setting up a distil plant and practically wiped out his entire floor when he stuck a match. At least, that’s how the story goes. Could have been anyone on that floor who lit the match. The smog killed the flames in less than an hour.
Pulling my hood back, I stepped into the Airian and took a decent few breaths, more comfortably this time. Government issue real air chambers for free. Well, that’s as far as it goes. What they don’t say is that you get bombarded with ads and promotions and have to pay your bills here rather than from home. It’s supposed to do away with fraud and people getting more than their free air allocation by wanting to avoid ad-pollution. Bit rough on any surviving OAPs getting here, especially if you want to walk anywhere, you needed clean air in your tank. I was reasonably fit, even at my age. I was only thirty after all. The air wasn’t stale. I wonder how long that’ll last? The number of people was getting ever smaller.
Speaking of which, that had to be the first thing I had to do. I joined the shortest queue to one of the free air lines to fill my tank. Couldn’t leave without it and as much as I would like to hang around in here for a few hours, sooner or later security would spot you and kick you out. Without clean air in my tank, I might as well cut my throat now and have done with it. Be a lot cleaner. A lot of people chose that or by default that option which made its own dent in the population explosion. I couldn’t really blame them. If they didn’t do that, no one else would be able to get in here. There wasn’t enough fresh air to go around. Me? I’d rather spit an eye in the system and keep going as long as I can.
After gratefully filling my air tank, I switched to another queue to cash in my food vouchers to get some real food. Throwing up meant I needed to eat before I left. Needed the energy to keep going and a few ration packs to carry me over until I could visit here again. The fast food diners had a decent oxygen supply but as it cost more to breath than eat at them, they were out of the budget range for people like me, hence the dull but filling ration packs. These days, food was food. Like most of the folk here, any cheap food is better than paying for it. Try finding that in the government slogans. Cynicism keeps us alive. Getting my vouchers, I moved onto the next queue to get the turned into food bars. Hunger does that to you. With few people in this dying population, there was more ration packs to go round, even if they all tasted the same, it was better than nothing.
Like all of us here, I wasn’t in any hurry. Leave early and you had to buy the air you breathe. Just like all of us here. To do that you had to work and I was just out of a job…again! But when was that unusual? Jobs were lucky to last long these days. I’d look over the job pad while I ate. Once upon a time, it would have been after a meal but some smartass bureaucrat figured that would cut the time down in being in here. Bastard!
I chewed slowly as I looked through the list, thumbing any job that remotely looked like it would pay my growing air bill. I was in debt to that enough already. I often wondered why the software just didn’t match us to the available jobs but even with a reduced population, they want to keep competition tight so we know keep fighting to want to go on. Incentive they call it. I bet they’ll do that until there’s only one person left standing. Bet it won’t be me, though. As if they really care. If they did, we’d have free air all the time. I checked my credit rating. Not too good but enough for another day of air. I thumbprinted my authorisation for the bill to be paid and saw my debt interest grow proportionately. My little hovel would have another couple days air. Who would have thought air would be more expensive than food or water? Well, only just. Iron rations were better than no rations and they didn’t even contain iron.
The list pad bleeped. No vacancies today. The jobs I’d noted had already gone. Shit! Shit! Shit! I looked around but no one else was jumping for joy neither. Looks like we’re all out of luck. I remember the odd time when I pulled a job. Granted I didn’t jump for joy in case it gave anyone ideas to out-qualify me but it was obvious I was going to be off to work and you could see the daggers of envy in all the eyes who watched me. I felt the same way when I missed a job. Now nothing for anyone here. Not even room for envy. Have things really come to this?
Another day, Another worry. I was in the same boat as everyone else.
‘I take it you haven’t heard.’
I turned to the man next to me. ‘What haven’t I heard?’
‘They’re closing this place down today.’
‘My air supply barely gets me here. I can’t go much further. What’s the government going to do about it?’
‘The usual. Nothing! They might as well be dead already. Rumour is we might get a few air hydrants in a couple months…’
‘Which won’t be any good if we’re all dead by then. Bastards! We’ll be breathing the shit while we wait for our cylinders to fill.’
Another man turned and joined in the conversation. ‘Governments are dead anyway. Corporations are taking control.’
‘Without a client base? We won’t be around for them to sell us air to?’
‘Shouldn’t we be rioting or something?’ I asked looking around. No one else seemed that willing to join that conversation.
‘Not much point. Waste of air and energy needed to go home.’
‘Christ! No wonder no one’s happy. So what are we going to do?’
‘Stay here and take in the last of the air. At least it’s free ‘til then. Some corp is taking over the air-lines.’
I joined the gloom. What was the world coming to? But then, I knew. I was here. Worse, the world was being handed to the corporations who caused the pollution in the first place and they didn’t give a shit.’
‘Does anyone know which corp is going to be running our lives?’
They all looked amongst each other, hoping someone had the answer. Even a piece of gossip would be some kind of news.
‘It would have to be some rich one.’
‘Bet it’ll be something like Walmart who’ll dilute the O2 down.’
We all coughed and laughed over that one. Bastards! Saying that, that might be the only one we could afford. Special reduction offer. Buy one breathe, get another one free. Some joke!
Red lights started to flash.
‘Masks on everyone.’
‘But we’ve got a few hours yet…’
‘Don’t argue. It’s probably a foreign country working off their local time.’ I looked around. ‘Any idea who the new company is?’
Everyone shook their heads. Depression was tangible. There wasn’t anywhere close enough that they could make to.
Me? I wasn’t prepared to give my last gasp without some sort of fight, so did the only thing I could do, I slammed the emergency button on the list pad, hoping that it would intercept to the new corp.
The screen flashed up, ‘Audio or type?’
I selected type. As much as I would have preferred audio, with no air and through my muffling mask, it wouldn’t have heard me or me them.
‘What is the nature of your emergency?’
I typed in: This environment unit has no air. All occupants will be dead within hours.
Can you and they not pay for air? We offer good rates.
‘This is or was a government unit for free air. We don’t have enough air to get anywhere else or home safe nor the money to pay for more.
That is unfortunate.
There it paused. They weren’t even offering a solution. Just a dose of sympathy. End message. Thousands were about to die and we were an unfortunate statistic. Was I talking to someone or a computer?
Are you someone I can talk to?
I had to ask.
In what regard?
Your company needs to make profit from its latest acquisition, supplying air, yes?
But if we’re all dead, here and elsewhere, you’re going to have zero growth. No profit.
We will sell this business interest to another company.
Who will buy a dead business when everyone is dead? Hardly profitable.
That gave me pause for thought. A lot of dead bodies, scavengers thieving our possessions.
There are always assets.
The bastard was thinking the same way.
Hardly good PR. Won’t be any PR with everyone in the same boat. Everyone would be dead. No customers. Corporate suicide. We’re really all in it together.
The screen remained blank. Was whoever it was thinking or consulting someone higher up the chain?
I typed again. Are all your employees dead then?
They are not responding.
Can I make a suggestion? Turn on the air for everyone. Give long enough for everyone to gather their wits and make a decision that without clean air, everyone dies. No air. No employees. No customers. Employ people to clean air. Grateworld…I mean grateful world.
I checked my air tank. Nearly empty already. I hardn’t realised dis was…was…taking…so long…
There was a hiss. Glanced up at the wall wall…the air pressure was rising. When it was half normal, I pulled my mask off and took a deep breath and coughed. Still a lot of CO2 but that was changing. I began to pull the masks off the people around me. They hadn’t shifted. There really was no time to go elsewhere.
There was a rumble from the speakers. I looked at the pad.
Are you still there?
Are they recovering? I have turned on the air purifiers everywhere.
It will take time to clear all the CO2 but it’s a start. Thank you,
This will probably come under your categorisation of a wake up call.
You gave some sound judgement.
Can I offer you a job?
As long as it doesn’t ever mean turning off the air again.
You will be there to see that never happens again.
I can live with that as I’m sure everyone of us left will.
I will draw up the contract. As the air rights now belong to one corporation, it only needs one decision.
I took a deep breath. The air felt better. The others were pulling the masks off everyone else. Had I accepted a job? No last gasps. Maybe we can do more for our personal survival. I shook my head. To do otherwise would be fatal. A near dose of that was enough. Would anyone complain? Let them try.
© GF Willmetts 2013
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