Breathing Exercises

by Michael Bard


"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

"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

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

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


Final Score: 44 out of 50

Raven's Comments:

Well, you set out to do something different, Bard, and you definitely
succeeded. You've got a great concept here -- the idea of a person
growing up in a liquid oxygen-carrying medium is an intriguing one, and
you've given us a very plausible explanation for why it might happen.
This story reminds me of the science fiction short stories of half a
century ago, when people would write a tale just to explore the
possibilities and consequences of an interesting new scientific concept
(be it time travel, a planet orbiting multiple suns, cloning, etc.). It's
not the sort of story I've read in quite a while, and it's a nice change
of pace.

Both of your characters are colorful and amusing -- Shizu being so
stubborn and defiant and ridiculously certain of her superstitions about
air, and Imatarou being patient and nurturing but also firm enough to
push his frightened chick out of the nest when the time has come for her
to fly.

Execution was mostly good, but it became clunky in a few places,
particularly when describing the way her movement is altered by trying to
"swim" through air. There were also at least one or two times, such as
when she was trying to hold her breath in the air-filled room, that you
fell prey to redundancy while describing her need to breathe and the lack
of breatheable medium around her. There were also a few times when
Shizu's panicked thoughts were more amusing than dramatic ("--she needed
to breathe and there was nothing around her. Nothing but air!") --
because, of course, *we* know that she's being a ditz and the air isn't
going to harm her in the slightest. For the most part this was
entertaining, but there were a few places when it bordered on annoying.
("For pity's sake, Shizu, *use* that huge store of knowledge Imatarou has
been feeding you...") I liked the fact that it was her discovery of her
voice that finally convinced her to stick with being an air-breather --
nice to know she can appreciate the beauty of natural vocal cords vs.
electronics, in spite of growing up with the latter all her life.

As much as I liked the story, though, the image of the chalice didn't
really end up having anything to do with the events taking place; as with
Greyflank's entry, it's an image for the image's own sake, with no
significance other than as a hypnotic cue. You do a nice job of
explaining its presence at the end, but this still costs you one point in
the Applicability department. Unfortunately, one point is quite a lot
when the competition is this tight.

All in all, a fun story with some cute, sweet elements and some genuinely
intriguing sci-fi bits, as well. It may not have placed as high in the
ranks as your two previous contest submissions, but it's definitely
worthy of standing alongside them in the Raven's Lair archives.


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