Shortly after the shift began, an octagonal envelope sealed with red wax toppled down the tube and into my basket. All over the shaft, similar envelopes fluttered invisibly down at each station like snowflakes. It's wages day, and after breaking the seal and tearing the envelope open I was six octagons richer.
On this day we are allowed to go to our nearest Exchange in shifts. At the fourth gong I entered the elevator along with eight or so others, including the new moloch and (unfortunately) moloch17 whose braying chatter I resolutely ignored.
The new moloch was easy to spot. After some time down here at the lower levels, working in the heat and darkness and humidity, we begin to grow a sort of coral on our outer selves. This moloch was still polished and shining, and his gear did not have the worn, make-it-last look of ours. His attitude was similarly untarnished. He was still excited to be working down here. "Enjoy that while it lasts," we told him. Old hands in Hell, welcoming the new recruit to their ranks.
The goods at the Exchange are kept locked away in the back, and reluctantly brought out by moloch99 upon request. You shop by browsing the cases which display one of each item, each lit by a single electric light. Here you can purchase things not issued as standard gear for a moloch: seashells, polished sticks, gold-plated clasps, musical instruments, leaves of various colors and shapes, bound journals both blank and already filled, pens and ink, vials of sand, paint and brushes, hats, gloves. Capes.
While the others fanned out, I walked straight to the counter. "The red cape, please."
moloch99 looked at me with his head tilted to one side, as if I had said something suspicious. This is how he responds to nearly all requests. "Item number?" he barked.
He swiveled and disappeared through the door in the back. I hummed as I waited, watching the others. After a few minutes he returned, empty-handed. "Out of stock," he said.
"Out. Of. Stock."
I stood speechless. I had saved my wages for months. Every wages day I would ride the elevator to the Exchange with the others, not to buy anything but just to look at the wonderful red cape. "Wait!" I said. "I could buy the display, couldn't I?" Without waiting for an answer I ran zig-zag through the Exchange till I came to the case with
the red cape in it. The case was empty.
"That was the only one in stock," moloch99 called across the store. Heads turned in my direction. "We'll get more in eventually."
"Don't know." He paused. "You could buy something else," he said almost kindly.
"Who?" I said thickly. "Who bought it?" moloch99 started to speak. Then he shrugged
and merely looked over at moloch17, who stood by a case on the other side of the Exchange and pretended to regard an arrangement of bright pebbles beneath the glass while his shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.
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