CreativeCommons CC-BY-NC 4.0
When Carl got to the blood bank he was already running an hour and twenty-three minutes late, and feeling puffy and light-headed. He ducked his head as he stepped in through the cellar doors. "Gretchen!"
She came out from the back room through a ribbed curtain that slithered out of her way as she passed, elbowing aside the receptionist, and slamming her palms down on the bench. "Carl! How can we help you today?"
"Just a quick fluid exchange. I need it cleaned and back in my body by six."
"In the morning, right?" One eyebrow up. Looking peevish. "You know I can't run a proper clean in less then two hours. You were meant to be here an hour and a half ago!"
Carl glanced down at the time in the right corner of his display.
"One hour, twenty-four minutes and thirteen seconds, and I know you can get my plasma back to me as clean as I need in half that time."
Gretchen struck her usual unconvincing pose. Hand on her hip, an attempt at a cynical, questioning look, followed by a coy smile and a bit of hair flipping.
"Flattery, my dear boy, will send you to the back of the queue, do not pass Go, yada, yada."
As usual, he waited it out. The final touch was the dramatic puffing of air, blowing a stray lock of her long, black hair out of her eyes.
"Fine. Just come on through."
The smell in Gretchen's studio was an overwhelming mix of hospital grade cleaning chemicals, synthetic fungus, and cannabis smoke. He climbed into the tongue, squirming with discomfort as its leaching tentacles made contact with all his major blood vessels. He felt the loaner fluid pulsing in to replace the blood, and the rush of the powerful sedatives that came with it. He felt himself slipping away. Then he felt nothing.
Earlier that day, Carl had been surprised by a package, delivered by an unusual courier. Somebody had actually managed to tie a very small note to a real pigeon. At least it looked like a real pigeon, it might have been a very convincing android pigeon, or a hologram of a pigeon projected into his mind using psychedelic radiation weapons. Whatever kind of pigeon it was, the note tied to its leg with nylon shoelaces was real enough to read:
FIRE SALE ON ANTIQUE 2020 ERA SOLAR PANELS,
RUBBER INSULATING GROMMETS, COPPERSILK EXTRUDING WORMS,
AND MUCH, MUCH, MORE!
HEAVY DISCOUNTS, LIGHT PRICES, TODAY ONLY!
OUTSIDE THE 33RD AIR GAP
The Air Gaps were the gates where artificial vacuum barriers kept the climate-controlled air of the city separate from the unpredictable natural atmosphere outside. It had been a long time since anyone had seen unstable gases actually exploding out there, but it still seemed like a strange place to run a jumble sale. Carl was sceptical, but he had nothing else to do that day, and hey, a pigeon! You don't see that every day.
Minutes later, the transit tubes had deposited him at the long low hall on the city side of Air Gap 33. A line of people waited to have their suits checked before leaving the city, most of them climbers, who liked to suspend themselves from the outside of the city with thick ropes of coppersilk and hang about all day, grooving on minute changes in the background radiation. Not Carl's cup of tea, but they were welcome to it.
The line was a long one, and Carl couldn't afford to wait around all day. Clean by six. That was the plan. He checked through the self-diagnostic on his suit. Everything looked fine. It had been serviced just a few weeks ago.
He looked scornfully at the climbers. They were planning to take some stupid risks, only sensible for them to be fussy about their gear. The Air Gap was ready to open, and wouldn't be ready again for at least half an hour. Let's go shopping...
Toes behind the safety line, he waited for the force generators to power down the fields on the far side of the Gap, sucking in noxious looking blue gas with a muffled thump. The warning light switched from red, to amber, to green. A few tendrils of blue crept into the hall as Carl and assorted day trippers and travelers crossed into the Gap, but the fields powered up again as soon as they were through, and giant extractor fans devoured the outdoor gases, and restored the vacuum.
"Was it worth it?" asked Gretchen as he come to, feeling groggy and at the same time strangely refreshed.
A few minutes before 6pm, he alighted from the transit tubes outside a brightly lit cocktail bar and nodded nervously to the bouncers, their tongues, hanging from opposite sides of their canine jaws, an unwelcome reminder of his visit to the blood bank. After stopping the two students in front of him with the guitar string hair implants, and checking their bags, they sniffed Carl casually and waved him through.
He found Gretchen at their usual table. Producing a wrapped present from behind his back with a flourish, he set it down in front of her, and took a seat opposite.
His anticipation made him pushy.
"Well? Open it!"
She tore off the glittery wrapping sheet. Inside was a set of antique portable solar panels, their hollowed out cases packed with high-quality, hydroponic buds. She smiled, and did a little dance of excitement with her fists.
"You'd think they would have changed the law by now."
"I know", she said. "Maybe one day."