Breathing Room

This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. No reproduction may be made, by any means, unless a licence has been obtained from the author or publisher. ©️ Tabatha Wood 2020

Written for the Hutt Writer’s Table group prompt — topic isolation and the word bubble.

I see it only seconds before he does and I try to not react, but a tiny gasp betrays my emotions. He stares for a long time at the tempered glass.

“Huh,” he says, and stands rigid. I feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck. “There’s a crack in the observation screen.”

“Is there?” Damn it. I sound too calm.

He makes an odd noise in the back of his throat, like he’s trying to clear a thick wad of phlegm. He points at the damage with one shaking finger.

“Yes. Right there. Don’t you see it?”

I could lie. Pretend I don’t understand. But it’s far too late for that.

“What’s the cabin pressure?” he asks me. I check the unit strapped to my wrist. The numbers on the screen flash like a heartbeat. Declining at a slow but steady rate. The crack is small but significant. Systems show a Level 3 critical alert, but the alarms are deceitfully silent. I know why, of course, but he doesn’t.

“All readings look good,” I tell him cheerfully. The lie trips off my tongue with ease and he spins round to face me, incredulous.

“How is that possible? There’s a bloody great hole in the pod! What about oxygen levels?”

I make a grand show of checking the unit again.

“All normal,” I say with a saccharine smile.

“How…?” he begins then trails off, and heads for the enviro-console. I know it won’t discredit my words. I cut all the sensors forty-eight hours ago. It’s amazing we’ve lasted this long.

He stabs at the array of backlit buttons, flicks levers and checks the readouts on the HoloVis.

In moments, his grin could rival mine.

“You know what this means, Anna?” I shake my head, feigning ignorance. “This means it’s finally over. We can go outside again!”

“Really?” My surprise is forced, a pantomime. Truthfully, this was how I’d expected him to react. “What makes you think that?”

“Isn’t it obvious? The pod is breached, but the levels remain safe. The atmosphere outside must be stable. We can get out, Anna. We can break Lockdown Protocol at last!”

He grabs the lever on the exit hatch before I can move to stop him – not that I want to stop him – and pulls it with both hands.

It moves easily. Far too easily, I think. Unused, shut tight, for over fourteen years, I had thought it would be seized somehow. That he would need to put some heft into it.

He opens the hatch. We step outside.

The sky is a heavy, velvet black, just like I remember it. A flicker of silvery-blue in the distance leaves sparks on the backs of my eyes. The pod lights throw shadows across his face. He laughs, breathes deeply and falters. In a instant all of his joy falls away. His cheeks are pinched and his colour fades. A bubble of blood pools under one nostril. It falls and paints a thin line on his chin.

“I don’t understand…” he wheezes. “What went wrong? I thought… I thought it was safe?” His words hang frozen between us and I reach out to take his hand.

The cold, and my adrenaline make me breathless. I feel my bones start to seize. My pulse pounds double-time in my ears. And I know, though the end is coming, I feel more alive than I have in years.

“I’m so sorry, Percy,” I whisper. “But I couldn’t stay inside any longer. I needed to see the stars one last time.”