by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
"I refuse to breathe air," she said, although her voice didn't come from her vocal cords, at least directly, as the liquid fluorocarbon was too dense. Instead, her words came from microelectronics attached to her throat.
"Just take a look then." Imatarou's voice echoed around her, and before she could respond the chamber dimmed and the image of a bowl containing a greenish flame appeared in front of her. The flame danced, calling, beckoning, and Shizu was oblivious to the flicking holograms around her chest as with careful motions she moved herself forward through the liquid. Gingerly she moved her hand into the fire, but felt only liquid as the projected light danced around her and glistened off her eyes.
"Just watch the flame Shizu. Watch and feel. Relax..."
Around her the images changed, her face changed, lightened. The dancing light coalesced so that for an instant she seemed clothed in glistening whiteness.
"The flame, the flame..."
"No!" Shaking her head, Shizu forced her mind clear of whatever Imatarou had done to her. "Turn it off now!"
The image before her vanished as the holographic systems shut down until all that remained was a dim light surrounding the naked woman, her long dark hair haloing her face as she floated in the interface room for the ship's computer. Malevolently watching behind her was the sculpture that encased Imatarou's core, an oriental dragon's head.
The computer responded, its words echoing through the liquid. "Shizu, you need--"
With minimal motions she spun herself around to face the dark and glowering interface. "I do NOT need to."
"It is in my progra--"
"You can overwrite your programming for all I care. I'm happy here. It works, I'm alive. I can explore the planet and you know it!"
"Stop interrupting. Your ancestors breathed air, the embryos I'm growing will breathe air, and you will breathe air as your body was created to."
To that the computer responded only with silence. An ominous, cold silence.
"Imatarou! Respond now!"
"Shizu, we are now entering orbit around Beta Hydri II. Stellar radiation has now decayed sufficiently due to the protection of the planet's Van Allen belts to permit the withdrawal of the radiation protective fluorocarbon. All liquid will be drained in 15 minutes." The computer paused, as if savouring the moment. "My programming will be fulfilled."
She glared at the icon, it's eyes dark and cold and uncaring. Then, as if drawn, she looked up and saw, instead of the ceiling, a glistening bubble that was slowly growing. A sphere of air that would expand and increase until it filled all of the ship and she would drown. She'd felt air when Imatarou had first told her she would have to learn to breathe it and there was no way she could survive on something so insubstantial. For a second all she could do was stare at the bubble, at the distortion of the dim ceiling light behind it. For another second she thought about arguing, but she'd learned over the last 16 years as Imatarou had raised her from fetus to baby to child to adult, that arguing with it was useless . She'd been taught technical skills, general knowledge, biology, geology, physics, astrophysics, engineering... Everything those on Earth who had launched this ship in an attempt to transplant the species to another world had known. She knew where the gene plasma was, the genetic banks, how to help the creation of unique humans, how to...
How to override the computer in case of programming/logic error.
She didn't have much time, but then the override was simple. With efficient movements of her arms she spun herself around and then dolphin-kicked away from Imatarou's cold image, as, all around, she felt the slight movements of the liquid she breathed.
Then everything went dark.
"Imatarou, damn you, turn the lights back on!"
The only response was a dull thumping as the pumps increased to the maximum safe tolerances. For a moment that was the only sound, but then there was a crackling hum, a flickering of lights, and the dim red emergencies clicked on. Praise the designers back in Beijing! It was then that she felt a fleeting coldness and lack of sensation in the toes of her feet.
Instantly, with a force that sent her body tumbling from its own momentum, she ripped her feet from the expanding bubble of air ensheathing herself in bubbles broken from the interface of the expanding sphere of near vacuum death. The bubbles caught in her hair, clung between her legs, a couple were even sucked into her lungs as she pulled the life-giving liquid in and out. By force of will she kept from coughing, kept from panicking at the spots of emptiness she could feel in her nostrils, and swam for the override. Glancing behind, she saw that the bubble was expanding, a perfect sphere from the force of its surface tension. She could see herself, her hair coated in bubbles, reflected and distorted on its curved surface.
No more distractions!
With that thought she tucked herself into a ball and then stretched out her arms to stop what little motion she had left, and finally stretched out so that her legs touched the floor. Kicking strongly, she sped through the liquid, the bubbles being pulled away from her hair but still following, caught in her back current. She didn't care, she didn't have time to care. Ignoring the tickling of air on her insoles, she strongly stroked her way through the hatch and down the hall. Then, in front of her, she saw it -- another interface layer from another expanding bubble of death. Frantic motions brought her to a stop, and she couldn't help but look through the interface, blinking to clear her contacts.
It was almost pretty. She could see herself, curving, distorted, stretching out in all directions, lit with a dim reddish glow that diffracted from the surface into a rainbow of colours. If it wasn't so deadly it might have been beautiful. Think! Contact with air wouldn't kill her -- her studies proved that. She could just not breathe, maybe, hopefully long enough to get by. It would have to be long enough. Making a few quick inhales and exhales as she positioned herself by a support bulkhead, making quick prayers to her genetic ancestors, she kicked off.
The fluorocarbon flowed across her skin, caressing her, mothering her, clinging to her due to its own surface tension as her motion moved her through the interface and into the air. Feeling the life-giving liquid all around her body, she slowly exhaled and turned to watch the liquid flow from her mouth and down her chest and between her breasts. A slow inhale and a current flowed back up her body and down her throat and into her lungs. This could work -- it could actually work! Then, her body moving sideways, pulling a cascade of bubbles through the tension layer, she moved back into the liquid on the far side of the bubble. She'd done it! "See Imatarou, you can't win!"
The override was just around the bend, and with a growing hope, and warmth of moral satisfaction, she righted herself, moved into the corner, spun around, and then dolphin-kicked her way down the final corridor.
Which ended in another expanding bubble of air.
Frantically she brought herself to a stop, but then she realized that it didn't matter. Even though the override itself was in air, the cocoon of liquid she would carry with her would be enough. This time she didn't bother making any quick inhales or exhales, but with strong kicks that ended just before the barrier, she sped up to reach the override as quickly as possible. Again she flowed through the interface, pulling streamers of liquid behind her, strings of life in the hostile air. She was free, protected by the womb that had kept her alive as she'd grown; protected by the womb that had shielded her from the radiation as the fusion bombs had decelerated the starship into this new system. With careful movements she grasped the handle of the hatch to the override and brought herself to a sudden painful stop, with what would have been deft movements within a liquid, as her legs banged into the wall.
The contact broke the surface tension that kept the protective cocoon around her, and, obeying the cold laws of physics, the layer thinned as it flowed down and across her handhold and began to ooze across the plastic surfaces.
In momentary pain and panic she gasped, and more fluorocarbon was spewed out in laughing spheres as she clamped her mouth shut. No time, she had no time! According to her studies, her body had minutes before it ran out of oxygen. Quickly she wrenched the hatch and pushed the door wide open, and, as the door thumped into the plastic wall sending glistening spheres of liquid spraying across the bubble of air, she pulled herself into the access tube and towards the override, her legs flaying and banging against the wall behind her. More precious liquid flowed away as she heard the door thump shut and seal behind her.
A quick glanced showed that her protective sheath was almost gone, patches of her legs were bare and her skin tingled from goosebumps as she recoiled from the poison that was all around her slowly spinning form. She was approaching the end and had a decision -- she could wait, not touching anything, keeping the cocoon around her until she died, or she could use what she could and then seal her mouth and live from what she carried within her lungs.
She had no choice -- it would be the latter.
With that decision, she curled her upper lip above her lower lip and breathed vigorously, feeling the fluorocarbon between her breasts, until at the end of the access tube she pressed her lips tightly together and slowed her motion to a stop with her hands and arms. Her right hand quickly tapped in the codes to open the panel as her left hand held on to the provided handle and the last little bit of momentum rotated her feet into painful contact with the wall. She worked quickly, desperately, ignoring the pain in her feet, feeling the liquid flow down her arms and across her fingers to creep across the bare white plastic. The tips of her breasts felt the air and recoiled, but she refused to let panic overtake her. Coldness gripped her chest as her lungs began to burn; her face grew cold and she could feel fluorocarbon flowing out of her nostrils as her face felt the cold grasp of air. Too soon only lonely isolated bubbles remained on her skin as the panel hissed open.
Involuntarily the burning in her lungs made her cough and a stream of liquid flowed between her lips before she could clench them shut and for a moment that action stopped the burning. For a moment, but then it became more insistent -- she needed to breathe and there was nothing around her. Nothing but air! Frantically she pressed the cold plastic keys, and then, finally, the telltales switched from red to green and normal lighting restored itself. Her lungs were burning and she needed to breathe but there was nothing around her but air, and then involuntary muscle action wrenched her lungs and more bubbles of liquid flowed from her nostrils before she pinched them shut. Letting go of her handhold, she pressed her mouth closed and then tried breathing from her lungs into her mouth and then back, and the burning subsided, but only for a second. She released her nostrils and began pressing the sequence to reverse the air pumps, and then had to grab the handhold with her other hand.
More bubbles of liquid spilled helplessly from her mouth.
Finally a thud echoed around her, and then a dull thumping as the pumps reversed. She'd done it!
But she also realized that she was trapped in the access tube.
Wih the hatch closed it would take time for the life-giving liquid to reach her, time she didn't have. Turning her body with desperate motions, she kicked off the panel and tumbled towards the hatch as her lungs heaved, and more liquid spurted through her lips to float mockingly around her. Her vision began to narrow and she fumbled at the hatch, her lungs were screaming at her ans they heaved and more fluorocarbon spilled through her nostrils. Involuntarily she inhaled, and pulled air down into her lungs.
They burned, by the ancestors they burned!
The hatch swung open and she could see the interface to the oxygen-filled liquid far, far away. Too far! She coughed, her mouth opening and liquid spraying out before she could clamp her lips shut with her hands. Convulsing, her lungs, now desperate for oxygen, heaved, and fluorocarbon sprayed out as her mouth yawned open. She was helpless. Now beyond her control, her body spasmed, coughing and vomiting and pulling air into the starving lungs. Thin, useless air. She spun, her body shaking as it threw out the last of the life-giving liquid and tried to subsist on air. Inhaling, she felt the air rattling down her throat and into her lungs where it burbled until she coughed again. The sound echoed, rasping, through the access tube. She felt spheres of fluorocarbon on her skin, flashes of pain as she flung her hands against the wall.
And finally a dry silence.
She was dead.
But maybe not. Blinking, she opened her eyes and looked around at the access tube as she tumbled with almost no forward motion. She could just make out the closed hatch in her periphery vision as automatic seals hissed open and liquid began to flow in through designated tubes.
It was then that she realized that she was breathing. Breathing air. It seemed that Imatarou had been right. Her ancestors had evolved as air-breathing mammals, she had been created from their genetics, and finally she had transformed herself into an air breather. But she was empty, hollow, cold. Trying to turn herself around she flailed through the useless air. There was nothing to push against, nothing...
Imatarou's voice echoed above the soft gurgle of the rising fluorocarbon. "Shizu, I'm sorry the transition was so painful, but it had to be done. Would you kindly restore my control?"
She felt the touch of liquid on her hand, and then it was gone, torn away as she spun. Damn Imatarou, but he was right. Breathing air would make the surface exploration easier, much easier.
There was another splash, and her rotation slowed as her feet moved into and through the liquid, dragging wobbly spheres behind them, slowing her down.
"Shizu, you need to stop the liquid restoration or you'll have to go through this again."
She hated it when Imatarou was right. He was always right. Through gritted teeth she responded, "But I can't get there -- this is all wrong!" Her voice, high pitched, frantic, newborn, echoed through the tube. It was like the women she had heard singing on recordings. Sweet, melodious, entrancing. "Is this me?" Below it she could hear the electronics on her throat converting her wondrous tones into cold electronic drivel.
"Shizu, the override?"
Imatarou's voice brought her from her mesmerized state and she realized she'd nearly stopped rotating. The fluorocarbon had already half filled the access tube and her out swept hand brushed against the handle by the override and instinctively grabbed it. Using it she awkwardly pulled herself around and then typed the codes that disabled the override and finally there was another thump, and then a steady thudding as the pumps again reversed themselves.
"Thank-you Shizu. Checking systems -- orbit stable, systems unchanged." The thudding faded as Imatarou reduced the throughput of the pumps down to their normal load.
"But this air is so cold!"
"Give it a little time. Then it'll be time to spin the ship for your next lesson."
She remembered the training files. Planets had gravity. She had existed within a similar force when the ship had decelerated, but in her liquid womb she hadn't felt anything. Gravity was something that would pull her down...
"Yes Shizu, the momentum of your motion will simulate gravity."
"Will it make moving around in this air easier."
"Eventually?" It couldn't be as bad as learning to breathe air. "Imatarou, by the way, what was the fire for? The holographic projection you made."
"That was a projection designed to hypnotize you, to ease you through the change from liquid breathing to air breathing. Pre-launch experiments showed that it goes better that way."
She turned herself around and pulled the electronics from her throat, feeling the tearing of the adhesive from her skin as a release. "Would that help me transition to gravity?"
She sighed. By the ancestors, it couldn't be as hard as learning to breathe air!
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