By: Marisa Sloan
The charcoal morning spilled through the palm-sized window of my room. I jolted against the checkered metal as a searing weight collapsed on my chest. I clawed at the walls, convulsing as barbs of pain jabbed me with every breath.
A foot away from me, the light of the monitor flooded me with my daily quota: 20,000 words.
This could not be happening. I had to produce.
My shipment was a day late. How was I supposed to go a day without Aetura? We were just like pre-digital humans without it.
I knew I should never complain. I was lucky to get this job. Out of 40,000 applicants, they chose me because I had produced the most articles in my age bracket. With 30 billion people in the world, I could not take my competition lightly.
My marketing team was part of a global initiative to advertise a drug, Algirev, which had been on the market for a few months, but had not gained much traction. My stomach lurched to think about how we would all be out in the streets if this campaign failed. I had a modest 6×8 ft. space; the protein workers outside only had the wind shafts to shelter them. Who knew what strains of disease drifted along the streets, imbuing the lungs of those wraith-like souls?
I should have taken more pride in my work; my team spearheaded the hope narrative. The annual production rates from the economics bureau had revealed steady failure rates. As of this month, up to 30% of corporate employees were going into pre-termination processes before their 40s, and they terminated on average at 43. Our drug was designed to complement the annual vaccinations to slow the effects of termination so that workers would be able to produce up into their 60s. Lifespans had peaked around 80 about 3 centuries ago, but back then humans also wallowed around for up to 3 decades doing nothing with themselves. I think they called it “retirement” in my history courses. We were supposed to evolve out of that.
I tapped the emerald digits in the outlet of the left-hand wall. Overhead, the chute opened, and my daily protein bag landed in my lap. I attached the IV from the bag to my left arm. I then plugged the other cord that came with the bag into the wall. Usually a little breakfast in the morning would cure the initial fatigue. I had really been slacking by laying still for 2 hours each night while my senior coworkers only used about 1 hour of remission. They said I would get used to it, but I suspected that their doses of Aetura were higher too.
I waited for a few minutes until the bag was sucked dry and removed the IV, waiting on the coals in my chest to cool. But they burned on as if wanting to melt the chambers of my heart.
I opened my palm and traced along its tributaries, tapping on an individual crease. The touchpoint sprung forth a circular screen that let me see Tela’s workspace. As she stared intently at her monitor, her thoughts drummed across the screen in a stream of paragraphs. I drew my fingers together to close the window before she could see me. I tapped another crease to see what Heron was doing. He was a bit of a traditionalist, typing on his holographic keyboard rather than just thinking out the copy. Within a few hours, they would be checking in on me, and seeing my blank monitor, they would of course report me to the project board. There were plenty in the smog streets who would sever a limb for what I had; there was no time for an unproductive employee.
Through the glass, I peeked at the luminous cubes of white fire festooning the cityscape. It rattled me to think that these metal compartments teeming with life occupied what used to be droves of field. Everyone was nestled in their cubicles, eyes intent on their monitors as they worked harder and longer than me. I did not deserve this space; I deserved the concrete and protein factories of the outside. But I was too selfish to give my place up.
My hazy memory trailed back to the old employee Shera, who was fired by the board of directors a few weeks ago for her lack of productivity. She looked just like one of the pre-digital humans as we synced in to witness her explanation. Her sclera were swathed in pink as strands of blood vessels crawled toward her pupils. The wrinkles that had gathered beneath her eyes looked like fissures of parched earth. A sheen of liquid tinged those dull, bottomless obsidian orbs. Flushes of crimson bloomed in her cheeks and spread to her chest as she looked down. Even her amber mane had brittled to an ochre mass.
I remembered that nauseating suspense as she explained her inability to produce. I knew that I should have soured my expression like the board of directors, but all I could muster was a blank stare. After all, she was a drain to us. I remembered in my history classes that the pre-digital era reported high rates of anxiety and fatigue as society transitioned to the technological landscape, but those symptoms were like Typhoid at this point: old diseases. We had been administered shots at birth and had plenty of Aetura to combat those ills.
I suspected beneath the slate demeanors that there was a strand of sympathy coursing through everyone, considering that Shera’s degeneration was inherently natural. It was just disappointing that the process set in so quickly, as it indicated her lack of self-management. It unnerved me to think that she was only ten years older than me and had already completed her production cycle. The board of directors, who were in their forties, still lived with fire in their eyes.
Yet here I was at 25 reeling as the termination process melded with my bones. I thought of the macabre description derived from my health management course. Apparently during the pre-termination process, the neural circuits would slow, the chest would tighten, the vision would blur, and the body would be confined to its bunker. I was just like those humans a few centuries ago whose weak bodies would tire after less than 24 hours if they did not have several hours of remission. I think they called it “sleep” back in the 2000s, the pre-digital age. A cascade of liquid foiled over my vision as the back of my eyelids pulsed, surging and withdrawing like the ocean waves of our flooded coastal regions.
Shame welled up from my stomach to my lungs as I thought about my blank monitor at the end of the day, and the board of directors ordering my eviction. Five years of meeting the quota every day and I was going to terminate before my thirties in the smog streets because my insurance was late. What a way to go.
I looked through the window again and discerned the charcoal-bathed masses plodding either to the protein factories or desalination plants. A mass of shadows paused by my room; he must have been 6 ft tall. He was lean, but I could vaguely discern the muscles beneath his uniform. He was a body meant for breaking. I wondered what it was like for him to not take Aetura. I never would have made the quotas without it.
He stopped to look at the subdivisions, perhaps in envy, perhaps in curiosity. His cinnamon eyes locked with mine through the glass, my world’s lens. I expected his expression to silently sneer, it must be nice in there. I probed his countenance, excavating nothing but resignation from his stone smile.
As I gazed upon his sunken cheeks, it crystallized that he was in the throes of pre-termination too, albeit at a slower pace. The metal exterior and waves of smog that separated us dissolved in those moments.
We all have to produce, his eyes said to me.
Our connection snapped as a drone blared overhead. As he disappeared from view, a cadmium prescription bottle tumbled down the chute and onto my mattress. I squeezed with a phantom’s strength on the cap, and umber beads pooled onto the sheet.
Three-month supply. I almost gulped them all to quell the convulsions.
But instead my fingertips caressed the walls like Tantalus grazing the skin of an apple. With a final thrust of my body, I slammed off the switch that was synced to my hand.
The monitor, in all its behemoth white brilliance, shrilled and snarled until it snapped to pitch.
My chest squeezed my heart, ready to drain its juices like the grapefruits that once flourished in the coastal regions. The winds that had frosted and fossilized those sweet flesh plants would soon claim my body too. Before the end of the day, the board of directors would notice that I never clocked in, and I would be another carcass in the streets.
I laid there with my cheek scratching against the fibrous sheet. The shutters of my lids slammed down. Iridescent tendrils snaked across the palette of shadows. Maybe this was what it was like for humans to dream centuries ago. This would be the only work I ever produced without the pressure of a quota, or the rush of Aetura in my veins.
It was my greatest creation of all.