The Hardest Thing to Hold
My thoughts on night number seven hundred twenty-four on the starship Perpetuator, bound for the Alpha-Centauri star system:
I need a breath of fresh air.
The time is a quarter past three A.M. according to my bedroom’s alarm clock. I can hear the top mattress of my bunk bed creak; that’s my younger brother Richard Klein, just past his thirty-ninth birthday, readjusting himself in his sleep. Sometimes I wish I could sleep as well as he can. We’re only five years apart, and yet he acts so much younger, so much more innocent than I do. Maybe that’s because he was always more enthralled by the Perpetua Project than I was (or was his excitement an effect of his youth?), always so into such noble endeavors as sending human beings to other planets.
My opinion? Travel brochures never tell you everything. Advertisement is just another form of propaganda.
I can’t turn on the lights without waking him up, so I roll inch by inch onto my side and sit up. My mattress groans a few times, but my brother’s gentle breathing persists, and as I leave my bed and cross the cold metal floor to the doorway, he rolls over again as if this night is just like any other.
Granted, this is no unusual night for me, but I don’t like thinking about my midnight outings too much: I’ll start feeling sick in my stomach, and guilt will fuel my insomnia.
Adrenaline fuels my insomnia, too, but it’s different. It doesn’t gnaw at your heart or your mind; it doesn’t latch like a leech onto your skin, burrowing deeper and deeper till it finds a nerve on which to feed. No, adrenaline only serves the purpose of heightening your senses to the point where every change of brightness, of noise, of touch is apparent as a crack in a mirror, and then it subsides. Sometimes it even pushes the guilt from my mind.
A gentle hum vibrates the walls of passenger corridor 3A, Quadrant B, in the Perpetuator as I progress to its end. I make a right, open a door marked Authorized Personnel Only a crack, and slip into the narrow, dim crew stairwell.
Whenever I nudge the door closed again, I wonder if any sound the door could possibly make is louder than my pounding heart.
Now alone, I tap thrice on the railing — pause: One Mississippi, two Mississippi — and tap thrice again.
“Whossere?” a voice hisses from the iron mesh platform above my head.
“James,” I grunt in reply. “Can’t sleep, Allen. Got any, uh...?”
“Yar. C’mon up.”
I mistake my heartbeat for my footsteps several times as I ascend the metal stairs. By the time I reach the platform where a fifty-year-old gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard waits, my head is spinning.
I slump beside him and sit in silence for what feels like minutes.
“Th’ tank’s half full,” Allen says. I nod without comprehending.
A cool piece of plastic is pressed into my hands; I focus, and the whitish blur resolves into the shape of a respirator.
“Just a breath,” he reminds me sternly.
I take a breath — a nice, long, fresh breath. The hand holding the respirator slips from my mouth to my lap; I hold my breath for twenty seconds, ignoring my heart and lungs’ fervent protests for more, before exhaling slowly. I don’t think my head is spinning anymore; in fact, I would feel like I’m floating if not for the stale air of the Perpetuator’s atmosphere filling my lungs with what feels like lead in gaseous form.
I manage a bittersweet smile. “S’good.”
“No more. I risked my hide to nick it from the ship’s reserve tanks, so s’mine.”
Allen is adamant. I sigh and say to assuage him, “I wasn’t asking f’ more.”
“Oxygen’s hard t’ come by, y’know.”
“Yar, I know that.”
Allen takes his turn to sigh and takes a breath of his own. His eyes alight like embers as he inhales; they dim again when he releases the breath, adding more carbon dioxide to an air mix already low on vital gases.
“What d’ they think, that being conservative with the oxygen’ll sustain a fully crewed starship with five hundred passengers?”
I’ve heard this before — multiple times. Maybe Allen’s getting too high from the oxygen to remember what he said a couple nights ago, or maybe he just wants to talk. I nod to assuage him — rather, I try, but after my head inclines, it doesn’t go up again. For once, I feel tired.
“Gotta go,” I say. “Say hi to Ulysses if y’see ‘im, ‘kay?”
As I descend the stairwell again, I hear Allen mumbling something about illegal obtainment of materials necessary to human survival. Maybe he’s wondering what we’ll be charged with should we be caught stealing oxygen.
* * *
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Perpetuator—”
The announcer’s tinny voice resounds through the spacious white cafeteria of Quadrant B. I shovel more of my hash browns into my mouth, hoping the tasty food will counteract the discomfort of the Perpetuator’s air, and covertly glance at my brother. Ritchie’s pale blue eyes are focused on the nearest ceiling speaker, his food lying forgotten by his fork, tapping an arrhythmic pattern on his plate’s rim.
“It has come to our attention that the oxygen stored in our backup air tanks has decreased by a small amount.”
My heart cartwheels.
“We would like everyone to be aware that the oxygen in our backup tanks is needed in the event of emergency air loss—”
“What moron’d steal oxygen?” laughs Ritchie and continues eating.
“—and that we have instituted safety precautions to determine who is the culprit.”
My heart pulls out of its flipping and cannonballs into my stomach.
“Captain Irving has decided to pardon any guilty persons who confess to him. Otherwise, continued offenses will result in severe punishment.”
The metal bench of our table feels colder.
Now Ritchie is the voracious one while I pick at my scrambled eggs. My appetite is gone, but I still attempt to eat to keep Ritchie from noticing. I think he notices anyway but either doesn’t care or has justified my actions in his mind.
At least someone can justify my actions.
* * *
My thoughts on night number seven hundred twenty-eight on the Perpetuator:
Are we there yet?
Tonight is the fourth night I will suffer without inhaling oxygen. I feel like I’m breathing water. The air smells like dust and metal: very unpalatable.
I curl into a ball beneath my blankets and close my eyes. I never understood the tradition of counting sheep — what sheep am I supposed to count? — but I count to ten anyway.
Then I count to one hundred.
Maybe I can count to one thousand before I fall asleep...
* * *
Life, I have decided, is a drug.
All the entertainment available on the Perpetuator — TV stations run by volunteers (whose amateurishness shows), books both physical and cyber, games, and the internet — has grown so familiar to me that I have taken to lying in my bed, a book I will probably never finish open on my chest, and pondering pseudo-philosophical questions.
Life being a drug makes sense, though. When you’re denied what you need to survive, your pains and woes and persistent urges tell you to find them; when you have the essentials, you want more.
I told Ritchie my theory around three o’clock; he wasn’t impressed. He must still not be, because every so often, he glances at me from one of our bedroom’s two computer terminals as if he thinks I’m sick. The next time he does so, I meet his gaze and stick out my tongue. It’s the most humor I’ve mustered since a few months ago. Maybe I am sick.
Tonight, I plan to count to two thousand before falling asleep.
* * *
My thoughts on night number seven hundred thirty-one on the Perpetuator:
What the devil am I doing!?
It’s a valid question. I gave up counting at one thousand two hundred thirty-eight (or was it one thousand two hundred thirty-nine?) to sneak out of my bedroom. My insomnia is acting up; I could probably have counted to three thousand before I finally slept.
Down corridor 3A, turning to the right, through a gap in the Authorized Personnel Only door, and into the dim lightning of the crew stairwell, I keep wondering why I gave up counting.
I knock thrice on the crew stairwell’s railing, pause, and rap three times more.
“Ar, haven’t seen y’ up ‘ere in a while.”
“Been” — busy? tired? scared? — “been sleeping better than usual. Till tonight, that is.”
A pause. “C’mon up if y’want. I ain’t got any air, though.”
“S’fine; just want some company.”
I clamber up the stairwell, my heart echoing loudly in the narrow space, and sit on the iron mesh platform by Allen. His facial hair seems stragglier than usual. He glances in my direction and nods as I position myself by him, then returns his gaze to the general vicinity of his tank, lying unused by his side.
My stomach churns at the sight of the tank. Now that I’m here, I have no idea why I bothered getting out of bed. Lying in bed and staring at the bottom of the top bunk is better than sitting on cold metal and staring at an empty air tank.
I restart my mental counting.
As I reach one hundred forty, Allen shifts uncomfortably. “I can’t live like this,” he mutters, and licks his lips. “Honestly? Sometimes I wonder if jettisonin’ m’self would be—”
“Don’t! — that’s a coward’s way out.”
“Not if I have to fight through guards t’ do it.”
“Then it’s a moron’s way out.”
“Well...” Allen considers. “Yar.” He vaguely waves his hand before him. “But this air. How can everyone else stand it? It ain’t many people who c’mup ‘ere.”
“I know my brother hasn’t seemed t’ notice, but I dunno. Maybe everyone else jus’ hides it better.”
“We oughta take some tips from ‘em.” Allen’s pseudo-grin is forlorn, but at least it’s a grin. I wish I could grin tonight.
My count stops at three hundred five when Allen stands up, his bones creaking, and says, “I’m gonna sleep. ‘Night, James.”
“’Night,” I respond, staring at my feet.
I hear the clank of Allen lifting his empty tank, the click-clack of him opening the crew door on this floor, and the clack of the door snapping back into its frame behind him. Still I don’t look up. My heart is on fire, and I don’t think I can handle letting the outside world back into my focus before I douse it.
I don’t need it.
I need it.
No, I don’t.
Yes, I do.
No — yes — no — yes—
I look up, my chest filled with heat and my stomach roaring like an engine. I feel like I’m splitting in two, but it’s all right. I’ll be fine in a minute.
* * *
I remember where the oxygen reserve tank is because Allen told me where to find it twice before. I have no personal tank. I don’t care.
I enter the door and feel the hairs on my neck stand up. My chest hurts from my heart’s fervent pounding. I know I’m being watched. I don’t care.
I circle round the tank and grab an air pipe, unscrewing it just as I remembered Allen describing it: turn clockwise, stay steady, don’t be afraid if any oxygen leaks because that’s what’s supposed t’ happen...
It comes off. I breath in. Welcome air enters my lungs; my knees wobble as a sudden bout of weakness floods my system, my heartbeat still reverberating within my skull.
Footsteps. They’re approaching fast.
My hands fall to waist level, bringing the air pipe with them. I can’t reattach the pipe. I can’t. My lungs feel like they’re free. I could fly.
And I do fly as the lights blind me and a body slams into mine. What I don’t understand is why the floor has to stop my flight, or why my lungs suddenly feel like lead again.
* * *
There’s no trial — my crime is on high-definition video, so what is left a mystery? — but there is an official sentencing.
My metal chair is cold; the handcuffs that bind my wrists behind my back are equally freezing. The stale air is doing its best to choke me. My veins throb like bass guitar strings. These details I focus on to distract myself from the guilt swelling behind my ribs.
The justice of the peace, a rather overweight man with bags beneath his eyes and an office seat outfitted with plush black cushions and armrests, reads my charges. The words illegal obtainment of materials necessary to human survival make me smile. I wish Allen could hear.
After the justice finishes, he informs me I will be locked in a cell for three hundred days. I cannot contact people, but they can contact me. My cell will have a bed, a small bathroom, and a desk. I will have three square meals a day. I will be permitted to bring no objects that could result in suicide. A psychiatrist will meet with me regularly starting a week after my imprisonment.
I nod till my head feels like it will fall off my neck and then blink in understanding instead.
“Very well. Before you leave, do you, ah, have anything t’ say for yourself?”
The question catches me off guard; so does the justice’s tapping of a button on his console. “...What?”
“Well...” The justice scratches his head. “Do you... uh, have some, some statement about your actions which — that you would like t’ be kept, um, on record?”
The Perpetuator’s officials probably don’t care one way or the other. I nearly open my mouth to give an excuse but stop, my gaze descending to the feet of the justice’s carved wooden desk.
“I hate myself,” I say finally, meeting the judge’s gray eyes with my clear blue ones, “but I can’t help needing oxygen t’ live.” I stop there; I can’t trust myself to say anything else sane.
The justice waits a few seconds to ensure I’m done, then nods and presses the same button on his computer. “Very well.” He presses a different button. “Guards, you can escort Mr. Klein to his cell now.”
The guards bring me into a crew elevator and press a button. The elevator shudders, and as its descent begins, so does my count. One. Two. Three. Four...
The first thing I notice on our descent to the Perpetuator’s small jail is that I feel more tired than I have in weeks.
The second thing I notice is that with each passing second, as the elevator drops, the air gets a little harder to breathe.
Edited by Legolover-361, Dec 24 2012 - 04:47 PM.