Settlers of the Void


Inhalation

Today I breathed PIB-1176’s air for the first time. I was the first out of the whole crew, the first one of us to take something from this place and integrate it into themselves. I didn’t volunteer. Things this serious are always determined randomly by Oversight and my name was the name that came up.

When I checked the terminal this morning, all the screen said was that I should report to medical. Nothing about the message seemed particularly unusual. We’re always giving samples of fluids or being injected with something and I’e learned just to roll with it and let the medical staff do their jobs. But when I got to the medical bay, things felt different. Less routine. Robertson was stifling a worried look on her face while her nurses and interns fidgeted behind her.

“My screen said I should come to see you,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Today you’re going to help us with an experiment,” she said. “We need to know if the air outside is safe for us to breathe, and there’s really only one way to know for sure.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll try.”

“You won’t have to do anything except breathe. Just keep breathing: inhaling and exhaling. We’ll do the rest.”

They took my vitals, confirmed I was healthy, and then led me to the lift, which we took down to the airlocks on the bottom level of the ship.

Robertson asked me how I was feeling. I told her I was nervous.

“Every sample we’ve taken has been well within human tolerances,” she said. “We have every reason to believe that you’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t very comforting. Robertson, as good as she is at keeping people alive, doesn’t always have the best bedside manner.

“What if the sensors are wrong?”

“Five of the chickens have been breathing it for the past twenty-four hours with no complications.”

“What happens if there are complications with me?” I asked.

“We’ll do everything we can.”

The lift stopped and we entered Hangar 6. For a moment I had visions of being the first man to set foot onto the planet, heroically taking in a big mouthful of air, and maybe making a speech to top it off, but that isn’t what happened. Actually, I didn’t go outside at all. I sat on a metal bench in a sealed chamber with a bunch of biosensors strapped to my body while Oversight slowly switched out the air in the room.

I breathed. I watched the percentages tilt from one end of the spectrum towards the other. First 100% Hierophant air and 0% PIB-1176. Then 90/10, 80/20, and all the down way to 50/50. The numbers held steady.

“You’re hyperventilating,” Robertson said. “Try and breathe as regularly as possible.”

All I could think about were my lungs bursting and my eyes popping out of my head. Or my skin turning green, or being smothered by a heavy plastic tarp, or worst of all: slipping off to unconsciousness without even realizing that something was wrong.

Robertson pounded on the glass and I snapped out of it. She stood at the intercom beside the airlock, watching me gag while her interns furiously scribbled down notes on their clipboards.

“Owen.”

My chest felt heavy, like I was breathing a liquid and not a gas.

“Owen, I need you to watch me,” Robertson said. “Can you do that?”

I nodded.

“Breathe in,” she said.

I inhaled. We waited.

“Breathe out.”

I exhaled. We did it again.

“What are you most looking forward to on the planet?” she asked, trying her best to smile.

“The rain,” I said. “I’m looking forward to the rain.”

I breathed in.

“What about you?” I asked.

“I’m looking forward to the sky. When I get outside I’m going to pick up a rock and throw it as high as I can. There aren’t any ceilings here. It’ll just keep going until gravity forces it back down.”

I exhaled.

Soon I was breathing 100% PIB-1176 atmosphere. It smelled funny, a little like a simulation of rotten eggs. Once an hour had passed, Oversight drained the chamber back to 100% manufactured ship air and that was that. The door unlocked and Robertson’s team gave me a battery of tests, all of which came back negative.

I got the rest of the day off. I spent it alone in my room, reading the printed book I got from the stacks, going slowly and looking up the words I don’t understand. So far twenty of the crew has been drafted to breathe the planet’s air and we’re all still OK.