Infernal, a clifi series part 3

in #fiction2 years ago

Hi fiction buffs! Here's part 3 of my shortclifi story novella thing - Infernal.

artwork by @iodacasamia
artwork by @iodacasamia

The queue hadn't moved for an hour. Hot and dry with the dust. Even the heart of the city wasn't unaffected by the near permanent hot spell.

I'd been waiting at a dispensary for nearly three hours and there were still fifty or so people ahead of me. I'd come in for some medication and hopefully, if there was any credit still on the card, some food. I'd already used the card twice this month, so they might flag it for 'observation' but what can you do when you're sick?

I was getting restless and edgy. Heat and the inability to breathe properly do that to you.

I tried to keep calm. Some of those in the line ahead had kids and they were really suffering - boredom and heat does that. Many had skin rashes; results of the poor living conditions endured on a daily basis. This rash was a common sight and it didn't just itch, it burned. Pot bellies and sagging, yellow grey skin showed the level of malnutrition that many suffered. That and the blank eyes.

The queue shuffled forward a couple of steps, then a couple more. It was liberating to be just a few steps closer to the door. Two people had died further down the line. The guards removed the bodies with eerily practiced efficiency. There was murmuring and obvious resentment from the crowd. A few harsh insults were thrown at the uniformed people. Secretly, we were all just a little relieved. Two more paces.

Things picked up after that. Sometimes, to quell the unrest brewing outside, the dispensary people would put on an extra attendant for an hour or so. This time, they'd put on two brave souls.

Another hour. A fight had broken out when a group of youngsters said something wrong as they passed. It was a common occurrence. Kids from families that didn't need handouts would drop not so subtle insults as they passed by, half hoping to be heard. It was a defensive thing. Queues of people looking for handouts cause embarrassment for those who have just enough not to need them.

If they didn't need welfare or weren't on that razor's edge of just enough income, they wouldn't be living around here. They would have moved north a long time ago. So the thought of being in those lines scared a lot of the youth and prompted them into antagonism.

It's good that racial taunts and attacks had all but disappeared over the last decade. There was no functioning government to stir up fear of immigrants in the run up to every election and the chasm between the haves and have nots had grown so vast that people realised that we all had to grind out the everyday, together. We only had each other and some token welfare that remained, more to remind us that there was still someone in power than to actually benefit us. In the old days pundits used to say that folks were kept unemployed in order to keep them desperate enough to take any soul crushing job that was offered to them as and when companies needed them. Now that the whole concept of work, labour and employment had been not just overturned, but crushed and broken, those ideas were moot and we just ground on together in the heat.

The fourth break of the day came. It was too hard to work without frequent breaks even if you were inside. Food and water vendors moved along the queue from front to tail. They'd long realised that those closest to the doors had been there longest and were the most desperate for something to tide them over - the most likely to trade what little they had for some snack or a mouthful of flavoured water, especially those with kids.

They passed by me and toward the end of the line. There was a scuffle and an argument some way behind me. A group had come with free water and some food, even a few medical supplies and the food vendors hadn't liked the potential loss of income. There were a number of these groups. Philanthropists with nothing much themselves but consolidating any extras they could get and sharing them out with anyone who needed something.

This lot passed on quickly, they had so little to give that the vendors just let them pass with little more than a few protests and obscene hand gestures. They knew these folks were doing good and it wouldn't take much to be on the receiving end of their generosity.

Getting to the counter took another hour. I was shown through the guide ropes by a friendly enough uniformed guard and on to the counter. The girl scanned my card.

'3 times this month already. You know I'm going to have to flag this?’ she said mechanically. It was probably the hundredth time that day she’d admonished someone with a similar warning.

’You may be stopped and questioned next time you are here' she continued. It was a standard threat, rarely carried out, just their way of letting you know that someone was paying attention.

Implant chips had been tried a few years back but the test subjects were driven to such extremes by the irritation and itch they caused that most of them had cut them out at home with whatever they could. Backyard surgeons did good business at that time.

I went to the booth where an attendant handed me the medication I needed. I asked if there was anything left.

'20' she said.

'Can I get...' I started to ask but she leaned forward and whispered. 'Two streets down, Ono Cafe. They're offering much better rates than here’.

I turned and left the booth. It was common for dispensary employees to be involved in black market deals. Mostly they had family or friends who benefitted from their access to desperate customers. The last time I'd taken one of these offers, I'd saved more than half of the dispensary cost and hadn't needed to pay the dispensary fee either. That fee was an old scam from the days of government. The fee was only half a percent of the cost of the items but when nearly everyone had to pay it at least once a week, it sure lined someone's pockets quickly. The caretaker government hadn't seen fit to remove it.

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