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What's In The Blend

K. C. Norton's work has appeared in publications such as Writers of the Future, Galaxy's Edge, and Women Destroy Science Fiction, as well as prior issues of Daily Science Fiction. She spends a lot of time thinking about where good comes from--preferably not a genetically modified IV pouch. When she isn't bouncing around through space/time, she lives in rural Pennsylvania with one dog, two turkeys, eight ducks, eighteen chickens, and several thousand mealworms.

Maman, who likes to make sure that we have the best of everything, insists that we have access to at least thirty-two percent. Twenty-one is beggar's blend, she says, and less than optimal. It's true: in gym, which is my third-least-favorite class, those of us on thirty-plus recover more quickly. Behind their helmets you can see who is in the thirties, and who's still breathing the old nitrogen saturated blend like they do back on Earth.
There's a reason we left, says Maman, and she's right. As we bat the artificially gravetized volleyball back and forth across the holo'net I find myself watching from the corner of my eye to see who is keeping up--and who can't.
Peter Centauri is practically blue in the face. That's what happens when you can't afford the nitrox mix. You're stuck with suboptimal air and you fall behind in class and everyone can see that you're a loser.
With Peter C, of course, everybody already knows.
"I'm starving," says Andri when we take our seats at lunchtime. Those of us breathing the better blends have much higher metabolisms. Our bodies burn through calories like souped-up jet engines.
Siri shrugs. Siri is on a diet. Siri is always on a diet.
Andri fumbles with the hookup on her supplement pouch. She's brought a pearly pink mix today, to match her nails. I can see the moment the pouch plugs into her IV because her shoulders relax.
"Much better," she says. "I seriously thought I might pass out."
Siri rolls her eyes and plugs into her minipouch.
"Aren't you hungry, Peia?" demands Andri, like I'm criticizing her by not eating.
"Oh my gosh, look," hisses Siri, and she jerks her chin toward the far side of the lunchroom. When Andri whips her head around, Siri hisses, "Don't stare!"
Across the room, Peter Centauri plugs a supplement cocktail into his intravenous tube. The clear plastic liner reveals that the fluid is pearly white, and I look away, embarrassed for him. Doesn't his family have any money? The school should at least tint the free lunch so that it looks like a designer meal. Instead the pouch hangs at his side like a sign that reads, Poor Kid.
Poor Peter C. That's what everybody's thinking.
"God," says Siri. "What a loser."
"Oh, stop it," says Andri. "Don't you think his life is hard enough already?"
Maman would approve of this line of thinking. I feel suddenly guilty for laughing at him.
Carefully, so that Siri and Andri can't tell what I'm doing, I tune my transmitter until only Peter Centauri can link up to my feed. Into our closed feed I mutter, "You can have some of my lunch. If you want it."
Peter's head jerks up and his eyes scan the room until he finds me. He scowls.
"Come on," I urge. I pat my IV pouch causally. The liquid inside is green, because green is my favorite color, and the color makes my meals feel fresher. "It's got to be better than whatever they're feeding you."
He tilts his head to the side and gives me a strange look through his visor. I hear a crackle of static before his voice comes in, tinny and distant.
"I need a special blend," he tells me. "I can't have corn proteins. Or nut oils. Or sugars."
"Oh," I say, stumped. I've never met anyone like this before. Back on Earth, I know there were people with allergies--whose systems couldn't process certain foods or plant pollens. None of them were invited on the initial expedition.
"It's fine," he snaps, and even with our weak transmission link I can tell he's annoyed. Like offering him some of my lunch is somehow selfish of me. "I'm not a charity case, all right? So back off."
"Sorry to bother you," I snap back, and I spin toward my friends. The sleeve of my suit catches on the edge of the lunch table, and I have to pause and free myself or risk ripping the poly-ply material.
Siri and Andri are staring at me, so I tune back into their audio feeds.
"Um, spaz much?" asks Andri.
"Sorry," I say. "I deep-spaced."
My friends share a look. After a moment they shrug. "I'm just saying that there are enough freak shows in town already," says Siri. She can be nasty like that sometimes.
She disconnects her lunch pouch and slings it into a trash chute. The half-full pouch bounces off the rim before the chute detects it and sucks it down.
Peter C keeps his pigment-free lunch on the drip, but I'm not hungry any more. I shove my lunch back in my bag unpunctured.
I can't stop thinking about Peter C's lunch pouch. I mean, come on, no corn proteins? What does he live on?
After school lets out and Andri, Siri, and I have shuttled back to our respective neighborhoods, I mope around our two-story townpod. I find myself wondering what Peter Cantauri's townpod is like. Maybe it only has one floor.
Shudder. That would be awful.
Maman finds me flopped on the couch, staring out our holo'window. "Why so glum, sugarplum?"
She perches on the arm rest. "Bad day?"
"Kind of."
"Ah." She nods.
"There's this boy," I blurt. "I offered him some of my lunch, and he was mega rude about it."
Maman tilts her head to one side. "Why did you do that?"
I'm not sure how to describe Peter C. "He's really poor," I say. "He had this generic school lunch pouch. It looked pretty foul."
"You're sweet to think of others like that." She kisses the top of my head.
"He said I thought he was a charity case."
"Sounds like he is."
I blink at her. When I hear how she says it, I kind of understand why Peter C was offended.
"Well," says Maman, "just don't get too close to any rough crowds. After all, this family has a reputation to maintain." She winks at me, as if to remind me we're entering election season, as if I could somehow have forgotten.
"Right," I say, and because she's my mother I wink back.
Before I go to bed, I set my feed on silent.
For a long time I lie there breathing. I'm wondering what it was like back on Earth, before the first expedition was formed, before we had to wear our poly-ply suits all the time, when we ate food instead of just piping nutrients into our IVs. Back when we were all breathing the same twenty-one percent blend.
Peter Centauri finds me at lunch the next day. I don't look at him, but eventually Siri notices and pokes me in the arm.
"Nerd at six o'clock," she says. "He's deep-spacing in your general direction."
Andri giggles.
"Whatever," I say. "He's a weirdo."
But he keeps staring at me and pinging my transmission feed until I finally whip toward him, connect to his feet, and hiss, "What?"
"Can I talk to you?"
"No," I snap, and tune him out, turning my back on him.
"Oh my gosh," says Siri. "He totally likes you, Peia."
"Does not," I say, and if my face turns red it's just because I'm angry at him for being so rude the day before.
He pings me again, and without looking I let his voice come through my feed.
"Thank you for offering to share. Yesterday. I know you were trying to be nice."
"Whatever," I say, and stand up. Peter's face is shocked behind his visor screen when I grab his arm and drag him out of the lunchroom. Everybody is staring, of course. I'm sure their chat feeds are already lighting up about us.
In the hallway I turn on him. "Say what you have to say," I demand.
He shuffles his feet.
"Three," I say. "Two, one--"
"Look," says Peter C, "I'm sorry. About snapping at you."
I cross my arms.
"You were just trying to be friendly, right?"
I scowl at him. "We aren't friends."
"Right on," says Peter C.
"But thanks for apologizing," I say, because that's only fair.
He smiles at me, and even if he's a loser breathing low-oxygen air whose family can't afford tinted meals, I really do stop being mad.
I can't stand him. I swear I can't. But while we're standing there, suddenly awkward, I adjust my incoming blend so that--just this once, honest--Peter Centauri and I are breathing the same air.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 4th, 2016

Author Comments

I am a SCUBA diver, and this spring I got certified to dive with Nitrox, an air blend with a higher oxygen percentage than regular old Earth air. When you're in an element that is not your own, carrying an artificial environment on your back, you start to appreciate something that you take for granted most of the time. I wanted to tell a story about someplace where every commodity, even things as vital as food and air, are synthetic prestige goods--and deep space seemed like the logical choice.

- K. C. Norton
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