The smelting furnace below me produced a blast of intense heat and smoke that hurdled into my workstation like Satan’s breath. The infernal gusts occurred on the hour every hour, ensuring my blistered skin never completely healed.
The timer on my workbench went off just then, and my sweaty hands fumbled between various implements, finally grasping the electrolyte pill container. After popping one, I picked up my flexi-pad, activated a heart-shaped app, and logged pill number twenty of the day. Failure to track the twice hourly ingestions would result in a write-up and possible termination for repeat offenses.
I sighed in relief and wiped the sweat and soot from my brow. Twenty pills meant I’d worked ten hours, which was the end of my shift. Readying for the showers, I grabbed my duffel bag, plucked my bioband from a heat-resistant compartment, and slid it onto my wrist.
I ascended the bowels of Acheron Chamber to an oxygenated locker room, and after discarding my synthetic work galoshes and oxygen rebreather, I queued up for the showers. As I waited, the intercoms chimed familiar corporate slogans like “Get rid of the muck, embrace the suck,” and “Here at Patala, safety precautions aren’t a luxury, they’re the law.”
A med tech suited in full hazmat gear handed each of us a small gelatinous ball from a steaming handheld cooler. After swallowing it whole, the gooey sphere broke apart and slowly slid down my throat, creating a numbing sensation from my esophagus to my gut.
A second med tech, equipped with a slender cylindrical apparatus, attended to each of us in turn. A rubbery tube dangled from the metal implement and was capped with a suction nozzle and bronchoscope that were inserted down the trachea and into the lungs. The bronchoscope feed was displayed on an arm-mounted flexi-pad, which the med tech used to remove harmful particulate deposits. I opened wide for the mandatory procedure and felt my soul being sucked into cold, corporate oblivion.
After showering, I exited the mines through the Legal Liability Office. Every morning, I swiped my bioband over a scanner beneath a wall-sized screen filled with corporate legalese. By doing so, I waived my right to hold Patala Mining liable for any injury or sickness, including or leading up to death sustained on the job, or for any medical expenses incurred therein. The might of Patala’s fine print bound each of us like chattel.
The hyperloop up to the surface took less than five minutes at a velocity of three gees. I claimed an empty seat and faced a screen at the front of the passenger pod. On it, a cheery woman lay comfortably in a medical recliner while a tech inserted a tube in her vein. She smiled at us and gave a thumbs up. “Daily dialysis is a must. Make your choice: good health or bust!” A chorus of women sang the accompanying voiceover.
The vid was a grim reminder to all colonists here in Sanctum; when engineers had initially discovered the colony’s aquifer, it wasn’t contaminated with heavy metals, but runoff from the mining operation had changed all that. No one knew how long we had been drinking from a poisoned well.
The cabin remained dead silent as the vid played on repeat. Openly disparaging public service announcements could result in stiff fines and penalties.
As we reached the surface, I felt a tickle in my throat. I tried dislodging it by coughing, but the sensation persisted like a nagging mosquito bite. I exited the passenger pod and ventured into Sanctum, a domed sea of prefab structures.
By the time I had arrived at my living quarters, the tickle in my throat had become an acute itch, and within minutes, I was wracked with involuntary coughing spells and, eventually, hacking convulsions. I pulled a hand away from my mouth and was alarmed to see tiny flecks of blood.
“Sylvia,” I activated my household AI and leaned wearily into the apartment’s med bay, a form-fitting recessment in the bathroom.
“Hello Mr. Inthavong. How may I be of assistance today?” came Sylvia’s feminine purr from the room’s intercom.
“Need a full lung scan and diagnosis,” I managed between fits.
“Certainly. Scan will commence in five seconds.” A metallic orb soon detached from one of the bay’s receptacles and arced across my chest repeatedly.
“Scans have detected an acute case of martius pneumoconiosis, otherwise known as Martian black lung. At the current rate of exposure, your right and left lungs will collapse in approximately 159 and 273 days, respectively. Immediate medical treatment is required.”
The news seared me like an overheated drill bit. With finances already in arrears, my weekly kidney dialysis treatment would have to be put on indefinite hold.
“Would you like me to order a set of replacement lungs with pre-approved financing from the Sanctum Commerce Authority, or shall I wait for a promotional offer to help offset your insufficient funds? asked Sylvia cheerily.
“Pre-approved fleecing, you mean. Take your pick,” I muttered, realizing the confines of my de facto enslavement were non-negotiable. The only thing missing is a cattle brand on my forehead. My new normal slowly settled over me like thick, black smoke from the mine’s toxic furnaces.
This story previously appeared in Sci-Fi Shorts.
Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba.
Andrew Leonard is a married father of three residing in Illinois. A speculative fiction writer, his works are published or forthcoming in Utopia Science Fiction Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways, Sci-Fi Shorts, and Timber Ghost Press.