Deflation 2001
by Bob Shaw

Having to pay ten dollars for a cup of coffee shook Lester Perry.

The price had been stabilised at eight dollars for almost a month, and he had begun to entertain an irrational hope that it would stay there. He stared sadly at the vending machine as the dark liquid gurgled into a plastic cup. His expression of gloom became more pronounced when he raised the cup to his lips.

“Ten dollars,” he said. “And when you get it, it’s cold!”

His pilot, Boyd Dunhill, shrugged and then examined the gold braid of his uniform in case he had marred its splendour with the unaccustomed movement of his shoulders. “What do you expect?” he replied indifferently. “The airport authorities refused the Coffee Machine Maintenance Workers’ pay claim last week, so the union told its members to work to rule and that has forced up the costs.”

“But they got a hundred per cent four weeks ago! That’s when coffee went up to eight dollars.”

“The union’s original claim was for two hundred per cent.”

“But how could the airport pay two hundred per cent, for God’s sake?”

“The Chocolate Machine Workers got it,” Dunhill commented.

“Did they?” Perry shook his head in bewilderment. “Was that on television?”

“There hasn’t been any television for three months,” the pilot reminded him. “The technicians’ claim for a basic two million a year is still being disputed.”

Perry drained his coffee cup and threw it in the bin. “Is my plane ready? Can we go now?”

“It’s been ready for four hours.”

“Then why are we hanging around here?”

“The Light Aircraft Engineers’ productivity agreement—there’s a statutory minimum of eight hours allowed for all maintenance jobs.”

“Eight hours to replace a wiper blade!” Perry laughed shakily. “And that’s a productivity deal?”

“It has doubled the number of man-hours logged at this field.”

“Of course it has, if they’re putting down eight hours for half-hour jobs. But that’s a completely false…” Perry stopped speaking as he saw the growing coldness on his pilot’s face. He remembered, just in time, that there was a current pay dispute between the Flying Employers Association and the Low-wing Twin-engined Private Airplane Pilots Union. The employers were offering 75% and the pilots were holding out for 150%, plus a mileage bonus. “Can you get a porter to carry my bag?”

Dunhill shook his head. “You’ll have to carry it yourself. They’re on strike since last Friday.”

“Why?”

“Too many people were carrying their own bags.”

“Oh!” Perry lifted his case and took it out across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft. He strapped himself into one of the five passenger seats, reached for a magazine to read during the flight to Denver, then recalled that there had been no newspapers or magazines for over two weeks. The preliminaries of getting airborne took an unusually long time—suggesting the air traffic controllers were engaged in some kind of collective bargaining-and finally Perry drifted into an uneasy sleep.

He was shocked into wakefulness by a sound of rushing air which told him the door of the aircraft had been opened in flight. Physically and mentally chilled, he opened his eyes and saw Dunhill standing at the yawning door. His expensive uniform was pulled into peculiar shapes by the harness of a parachute.

“What…What is this?” Perry said. “Are we on fire?”

“No.” Dunhill was using his best official voice. “I’m on strike.”

“You’re kidding!”

“You think so? I just got word on the radio—the employers have turned down the very reasonable demands of the Low-wing Twin-engined Private Airplane Pilots Union and walked out on the negotiations. We’ve got the backing of our friends in the Low-wing Single-engines and in the High-wing Twin-engines Unions, consequently all our members are withdrawing their labour at midnight, which is about thirty seconds from now.”

“But, Boyd! I’ve no chute—what’ll happen to me?”

A look of sullen determination appeared on the pilot’s face. “Why should I worry about you? You weren’t very concerned about me when I was trying to get along on a bare three million a year.”

“I was selfish. I see that now, and I’m sorry.” Perry unstrapped himself and stood up. “Don’t jump, Boyd—I’ll double your salary.”

“That,” Dunhill said impatiently, “is less than our union is claiming.”

“Oh! Well, I’ll triple it then. Three times your present salary, Boyd.”

“Sorry. No piecemeal settlements. They weaken union solidarity.” He turned away and dived into the roaring blackness beyond the doorway.

Perry stared after him for a moment, then wrestled the door shut and went forward to the cockpit. The aircraft was flying steadily on autopilot. Perry sat down in the left-hand seat and gripped the control column, casting his mind back several decades to his days as a fighter pilot in Vietnam. Landing the aircraft himself would get him in serious trouble with the unions for strike-breaking, but he was not prepared to die just yet. He disengaged the autopilot and began to get in some much-needed flying practice.

Some thousands of feet below the aircraft Boyd Dunhill pulled the ripcord and waited for his chute to open. The jolt, when it came, was less severe than he had expected and a few seconds later he was falling at the same speed as before. He looked upwards and saw—instead of a taut canopy—a fluttering bunch of unconnected nylon segments.

And, too late, he remembered the threat of the Parachute Stitchers and Packers Union to carry out disruptive action in support of their demand for longer vacations.

“Communists!” he screamed. “You lousy Red anarchist ba…”