Jane was exhausted, breathing hard. Her oxygen intake was down to 50% – still within survivable parameters, but far from optimum. If she dropped below 30% she would die. Her filters were worn. Recycled and rebuilt, not like the pristine filters distributed monthly in New City. But then this wasn’t New City. These were castoffs, the best filters Jane could afford. And they hadn’t been serviced in the entire nine months of her pregnancy.
Jim. Jimmy. James. He was beautiful. Five pounds four ounces. Healthy by Low Town standards. She would hold Jimmy for the first time in less than five minutes. As soon as the doctors finished fitting the newborn with his Ultratech Breathing Unit. Without the UBU, Jimmy would suffocate and die within minutes. A healthy adult could live without a UBU for up to thirty minutes. Jane didn’t want to find out how long a baby could last.
Jane had been saving for the past nine months. Every penny. To buy little James brand new filters. She couldn’t work the past month of her pregnancy. Too weak. So she fell a little short. Still, she had found Jimmy some pretty good used filters. She was proud of the good start she had been able to provide for her son.
UBU’s were mandatory. Everybody got one. Of course, they weren’t free. But at least you didn’t have to pay up front. They cost thousands. Born into debt. Just like everyone else. Welcome to the world, little Jimmy. Welcome to the world.
And then there was the monthly usage fee. You paid for every litre of oxygen breathed. Exercise, and even physical labor, was a luxury most could not afford. Ultratech owned the air. Their factories polluted and destroyed the air, and their invention, the UBU, made it possible to suck the last of the oxygen from the air. So everyone owed their lives to Ultratech. And most people, in the end, owed their deaths to them as well.
Jimmy was beautiful. Jane loved watching him grow. Within a few months, the boy was over ten pounds. Thriving. All the women said he was a strong one, he would survive.
Jane breastfed her son. This she did in secret, because it was illegal. By law, all children were required to be nourished with High Quality Infant Formula. But Jane could barely afford a half ration. And besides, she had read in a book as a young child that breastfeeding resulted in healthy strong and vibrant children. Jane wanted Jimmy to be vibrant, whatever that meant, and so she secretly breastfed her young son.
A year later Jimmy was walking. He also was starting to speak a few words. This was very unusual, since most children who survived were not able to walk until well after their first birthday, sometimes as late as 22-24 months. Jimmy was bigger and stronger than the rest. And it did not go unnoticed.
Jane worked in an office. She sat before a computer screen, looking at numbers and pressing buttons. While Jane worked, Jimmy played in the Children’s Day Care Center on the other side of the building. Jane would drop off Jimmy before work, and pick him up at the end of her shift. Sometimes, if the boss wasn’t looking, Jane would quickly walk the length of the hall during her mid day lunch break, and check in on Jimmy. Such was frowned upon, but Susie, who looked after the children, was kind. And she did not report Jane for this small indiscretion.
It was a few days after Jimmy’s first birthday. Jane was feeling her motherhood, and just had to check in on her son that day. The sign next to the entrance read Ultratech Cares. Jane quickly passed the sign without noticing it – she had seen it a thousand times.
As soon as Jane arrived, Susie noticed her and quickly came to her side. In hushed tones, Susie urgently informed Jane there was a problem with Jimmy.
Jane whispered back with great concern, “What kind of problem?”
Susie: “He is a bad influence on the other children.”
Jane: “Jimmy is such a good boy. What do you mean?”
Susie: “He is being wasteful with resources. We can’t afford to be wasteful, you know.”
Jane: “Wasteful how? What resources?”
Susie: “I didn’t want to say anything, but he was running.”
Jane: “Running! Really? He’s so young! How is that wasteful?”
Susie: “Really now. We can’t very well have the children running. They will overuse their oxygen, and then their parents will blame me when the bill comes at the end of the month, and they can’t afford to pay it!”
Jane left the child center and headed back to work, not having seen her son, thinking about what Susie had said about Jimmy being wasteful.
Another year went by. And then another. Jimmy was always bigger and stronger than the other children. More healthy. He ran. He played. He was physical. Every month Jane cringed at opening the Ultratech bill. Some months it was just more than she could pay. She fell more and more behind on the bills.
Jane would talk to Jimmy about it. She would try to explain that he must conserve his air, not overuse it. That he was costing Mommy money, and putting both their lives in jeopardy. One day Ultratech’s patience might wear out, and their air supply might be suddenly cut off!
“I remember when I was a little girl, this family, very poor, with seven children. They just could not afford to pay their bills. One day, Ultratech cut them off. All of them. The next day the vans were out. Picking up bodies. Do you want that to happen to us?” Jane felt bad placing this burden on a little boy, but she was frustrated. And the story was true.
Jimmy said, “No Mommy, I don’t want you to die. I won’t run anymore.”
And for nearly two weeks, Jimmy was careful to walk everywhere. But then he began to forget. He ran once, then twice, and by the end of a month, he was running everywhere again.
Jimmy was seven years old. Jane was nearly thirty. Jane’s work involved customer services for Ultratech. She watched numbers. The numbers fell into three categories – green, yellow, and red. It seemed only New City had green numbers. Green was good. Everywhere else were yellow numbers. All of Low Town seemed to be yellow. Then there were the red. Red was rare.
If a customer was red three times in a row, Jane was to hit the black button. She had only had to use the black button three times in all the years she had worked at Ultratech.
On a Tuesday, Jane saw this one account, with two users, that was red three times in a row.
Jane didn’t want to hit the black button. She wasn’t sure what happened when the black button was pressed, but it gave her an uneasy feeling. So Jane decided to go for a walk first. It was nearly break time anyway.
Jane thought of her son. He was so smart, so beautiful, so healthy. She wondered what he was doing right now, in school. The school was over a mile away from her office building. Too far to walk during the workday, even at lunchtime. Jane loved Jimmy so much. She was just sure he would grow up to be someone special.
When Jane returned from her break, she had forgotten about the three reds. When she reviewed the account again, she sighed. And pressed the black button.
Jimmy immediately felt something different. He was running, playing. His UBU had stopped. At first he wasn’t sure. Then he was. He remembered what his Mother had told him about the UBU – if it stops working, you have 30 minutes to live.
Rather than go to the nurse’s station, to the teacher, or to the office, to see if someone could repair his UBU, Jimmy’s first and only thought was, I need to get to Mother!
So he took off running, away from school, and toward the Ultratech office.
Jane was dying. She knew it. All she wanted was to get to her son. He was her life. She feared that since her UBU had quit, maybe his had as well. She knew she was months behind on the bills. And maybe, just maybe, Ultratech’s patience had finally wore out.
She headed for the hall. But with no oxygen, she didn’t have strength to go far, and collapsed near the door to her office.
Jimmy ran as fast as he could. He arrived at Ultratech barely ten minutes after his UBU went out. He ran down the hallway to his Mother’s office. As he neared the doorway, he noticed someone slumped in the hall.
He didn’t think it was Mother, but Jimmy stopped to help. He was shocked to find it was his Mom!
“Mom what’s wrong! Are you ok?”
Jane opened her eyes. She was confused to see her son staring into her face.
“Yes dear, Mommy’s fine. I’m just resting. I feel a little tired. How is my precious Boy?”
“Mommy my UBU stopped working! I’m scared. I don’t want to die!”
“Don’t worry baby. Just sit here with me. We’ll be ok together.”
So Jimmy hugged his Mom and together they sat and waited to die.
“I don’t understand it.”
“Makes no sense.”
“It’s a miracle!”
“The woman deceased in twenty-seven minutes. It’s the boy we can’t explain.”
“Tell me what you know.”
“We received a report of terminated UBU service at 10:48 am. The boy, age seven, was at school, 1.3 miles away. He apparently ran the entire distance, arriving at 10:57. Our response team arrived at 11:02, found the two of them huddled in the hallway, talking and laughing and praying. Our team waited, held back awaiting termination, prepared for extraction. The woman termed at 11:15. The team expected the boy soon to follow. They waited to move in. Thirty minutes, an hour. At ninety minutes they called me. At two hours we extracted the woman.”
“And the boy?”
“I know that! That’s why I came. Why does he live? How?”
“No UBU. It’s been four days, Sir. I’m sorry, we just don’t know.”