Last Day at the Department of Oxygen
“We breathe because we are human.” – Fred Dunderhoff, Secretary of Oxygen
The Federal Department of Oxygen (DOO) was a jewel of a building in the center of Washington D.C. Through a curtain of smog, it shined with newness, a line of fluorescently green plastic shrubs following the cut of its foundation and a rise of Greek steps leading toward the entrance. The building was bigger than its façade projected, more menacing than the address chiseled above the front entrance suggested. Outside, agency employees in colorful government jumpers filed into the building wearing OxyCap purification headgear that allowed them to breathe the polluted air. Today, some stopped to rest on the steps of the DOO, out of breath, before keeling over, while others made it inside to the airlock lounge before passing out.
Inside, Eric Needles was in the basement archives of the DOO when a message scrolled across his contact lens: Needles, my office, now. Eric was never summoned when the news was good. It was Secretary Dunderhoff, an impatient man who could be found pacing his fourth-floor office swinging a plastic Wiffle Ball bat, still bright yellow, a gift from an oxygen lobbyist who had bought it from a rare toy dealer in San Francisco. Secretary Dunderhoff’s messages typically came at the most inopportune times, as if he kept close tabs on Eric’s RFID tracking number.
Eric left the archives and made his way quickly up several flights of stairs to the Secretary’s office. Needles’ hands started to sweat. He was one of Dunderhoff’s policy wonks, an Unnecessary Environmental Particulate Analyst (UNEPA), Impurity Specialist, and a Special Assistant to the Secretary. Needles had joined the DOO right out of Georgetown 11 years ago, and now lived alone in a small apartment in Crystal City. He worked from a bullpen office with no windows and terrible ventilation. Binders were stacked on end in a series of sagging bookshelves lining the walls. In 2098, books and the bookshelves that held them were relics from the past. To hold them was to know the heft of the past, as if the weight of the book was what made its contents important. And the bullpen is where Needles had spent the last week devising a way to explain the troubling numbers he had seen in the latest OxyCap models without Dunderhoff blowing his top, but Eric, never important enough, couldn’t get on the Secretary’s schedule.
Eric rounded the staircase at the top of the fourth floor, brushed against two plainclothes security agents walking quickly in the other direction, and walked down a hallway busy with agency employees, some holding file tablets close to their chest. At the end of the corridor Rose Ford, Dunderhoff’s bird-like assistant, buzzed Eric through to the Secretary’s office. Dunderhoff’s chambers were impressive, overlooking the haze of the National Mall. Framed photos of Dunderhoff standing next to the 54 th, 55 th, 56 th, 57 th, and 58 th presidents dotted the wall. The original bill mandating OxyCap usage was also framed and hanging proudly behind Dunderhoff’s desk, and an oil portrait of J. Edgar Hoover held he back wall, Dunderhoff’s idol, dead for over 120 years.
Dunderhoff, tall and slightly balding, stood looking out the window, the Wiffle Ball bat resting on his right shoulder. The morning sun pulsed through a dense layer of pollution and in the distance Needles imagined the Washington Monument spiking out of the ground. Dunderhoff had built the DOO from the ground up. What had once been an under-department in the EPA was now a behemoth. It was the second most powerful agency in the country based on government contracts for the constantly updated OxyCap hardware alone. Only the DOD had more weight within the White House, a fact Eric knew burned Dunderhoff to his very core.
“Take a seat, Needles,” Dunderhoff said, without turning around. “I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors about bad OxyCaps.”
“Rumors are rumors, sir,” Eric said, and took an upholstered seat in front of Dunderhoff’s desk. “I don’t listen to them, but I have been looking at the numbers, and I have some thoughts if I can speak freely.”
Eric looked around, waiting for a nod of approval from Dunderhoff. A collection of original-issue OxyCap masks from 2022 were framed and arranged behind a Plexiglas cabinet adjacent to Dunderhoff’s desk. They were simple plastic masks that fit snuggly around the nose and mouth and had ballooned over the years to cover the entire face. Eric had never been outside without an OxyCap; he had only heard of people off the grid in Alaska and Montana and parts of Texas roaming, heads uncovered, breathing the natural air. Morons, he thought.
“Whatever you’ve heard, I’m here to tell you it’s worse,” Dunderhoff said. “Just look outside. People are dropping like flies coast to coast, dying. We’re in full crisis mode.”
Rumors of tainted OxyCaps had been circulating through the DOO, had been for the last week. Eric had tried to ignore them despite the numbers he’d seen, but the oxygen lobbyists had been meeting with Dunderhoff behind closed doors for hours on end and it wasn’t hard for Eric and the other UNEPAs to come to the conclusion that something big was happening. The money guys always had the Secretary’s ear, had cornered him in a hotel conference room overlooking the steaming Potomac earlier in the week and now Needles was hearing it from Dunderhoff himself.
“We’ve had recalls before,” Eric said.
“Not like this,” Dunderhoff said, and backed up from the window. He stood like he was in a batter’s box and swung the Wiffle Ball bat. “Not like we’re going to. You authored the most recent purity report for the headgear, am I right?”
“I did,” Eric said, and shifted in his chair. “Did you have a chance to read the report?”
“Haven’t gotten around to it,” Dunderhoff said. “Don’t think I will. But that’s not important.”
“Sir, I’ve been trying to meet with you about these numbers for a week.”
“Needles, the D-O-O has a sterling record, and we’re about to make the wrong kind of history here. There has never been a recall of tainted oxygen, not until tomorrow when we make it official. If people start taking off their OxyCaps we’re done as an agency.”
“We’ve recalled hardware before—”
“People don’t wait for a recall like this to start dying, they just start feeling dead. Then the shit hits the fan. No one can say who was the first to get a bad OxyCap, but Danny Foster in Iowa City was the first confirmed person in America to die from a tainted unit. The guy didn’t notice the gauge on his canister reading high levels of carbon dioxide, and nobody else is either. And now: an entire country of Danny Fosters turning up dead. One big accident. Have you seen the ruckus outside?”
“This is terrible,” Eric said, and thought of his mother and father in Cleveland; he would message them to replace the activated charcoal filter before they stepped outside, to double check the seal on the respirator. “We’ve got to send out an alert.”
“I know,” Dunderhoff said. “Tomorrow. Today you’re left holding the bag on this one. We’ve already drafted a statement, zinged it over to the president.”
“Now hold on—”
Dunderhoff looked the other way and started to talk.
“Rose, Rose—let’s get Needles a new OxyCap—from the new batch—and have HR show him out.”
Dunderhoff turned around and extended his hand.
“We’ll get you a new OxyCap,” Dunderhoff said.
“How long have you known?” Eric said.
“Long enough to order up a new batch of headgear,” Dunderhoff said. “We had to get ahead of it.”
Eric stood up and didn’t shake the Secretary’s hand.
“I’m going to appeal this,” Eric said.
“I think you should,” Dunderhoff said, “maybe when this all blows over.”
Two plainclothes security agents came through Dunderhoff’s door. They stood expectantly for Eric to join them, one of them holding an OxyCap from the new batch. They took Needles by the arms and led him downstairs to the airlock lounge. There, one of the agents took Eric’s badge and then they backed into the lobby and waited for him to exit the building. Eric fixed the new OxyCap firmly on his head, but he didn’t want to exit the building. The new headgear felt like the old headgear, the one he’d worn to work just that morning.
The airlock hissed and the doors pushed open. Looking out at the world before him Eric couldn’t breathe, didn’t know if he should. He saw people laying on the ground everywhere, uniformed workers bagging the bodies. The DOO loomed over them all, and some four stories up Needles imagined Dunderhoff choking up on his Wiffle Ball bat, taking a swing at nothing at all.