Author : A. Katherine Black
The bulkhead door’s round window slowly split in two as Clyde’s vision skewed. He continued pushing air from his lungs. That’s it, his lungs yelled, none left, but he knew they lied like everything did eventually, so he kept on blowing. Every bit of Earth air must be purged.
The computer chimed. “Please breathe in,” said a soft inhuman voice.
Tightening his lips around the wide tube, he breathed in, long and deep. Prickles burst in his chest. He’d felt worse. He held his breath while he stepped through the bulkhead. The heavy door thumped shut behind him. He breathed out.
No turning back now.
Clyde slipped into the last open seat and buckled, avoiding eye contact with the other twenty or so escapees. He was on his way. A brief elevator ride, a not-so-brief space jaunt, and he’d be back to repairing big rigs, like he’d always done. Just with a small change of scenery, is all.
He breathed in and winced at the pain.
“Hurts, don’t it?”
Duh. Clyde had no interest in acknowledging the face attached to that comment. He’d be stuck in conversation forever after that. Easiest way to get along with these people was to stay as far away from them as possible.
So he grunted, eyes on the floor, pretending to be interested in the beige tile design. No doubt a subtle attempt at soothing the passengers, who could freak out at the realization they were leaving everyone they’ve ever known forever, who might scream at the thought of microscopic robots reconstructing their lungs to breathe fake air on some frozen asteroid hurling toward deep space at a gazillion miles per second or whatever.
Clyde decided the soothing tile patterns were a brilliant idea.
Sweat rolled down his cheeks. It felt like his lungs and his heart were in a fight to the death. Either way, he suspected he was on the losing end.
A throat cleared next to him. Clyde finally looked the guy’s way, suddenly wanting the distraction. Maybe the guy would be a world-class jerk, and Clyde would hate him more than the bleeping nanos tearing his insides apart.
“My brother said it’s normal,” the guy said. His long black beard shimmered as he coughed. “Feels like World War Six just started in your gut, eh?”
Clyde looked away and grunted again. No point in conversation. He and Joe started with innocent chats on the bus to work, and six years later Joe moved out of their apartment while Clyde was on shift, ruining a perfect run for no good reason. Commitment? Sharing a lease and a bed every night isn’t commitment enough? Well, yesterday he’d signed his life away, and now he’d be tethered to an asteroid ‘til death do they part. If that wasn’t commitment, Clyde didn’t know what was.
Engines powered up as the room lighting faded to blue. Soft computer voices instructed them to hold on, don’t worry, they’ll only feel the crush of a few g’s after a small explosion underfoot.
Then everything shut down. Overhead lights turned searing white. The engine cut, giving way to a whining ring in Clyde’s ears.
Some lady’s voice on the com. “We have an emergency call for Claudius Rain.”
The activity in Clyde’s chest doubled. He was near vomiting.
“Mr. Rain, will you take the call?”
He opened his mouth. Nothing came out. So he shook his head.
“That’s a no?”
Tears mixed with sweat, indistinguishable. “I’m already gone.” His chest burned.
“Okay then.” A pause on the com. “We’re off, people.”
And the engines roared.