Breathe (Short Story)


Art by Olivia Neale

Olivia Neale, Creative Writing Student

As a rule, Jordan’s never been one for parting words—or rules, for that matter—but with the blinking red light in her peripheral vision, she feels obligated to make something of her remaining oxygen. 30%, the clipped tones of the automated system reminds her through her earpiece. She takes a deep breath and can practically see the bar dip lower as she does.
“I just want to say, for the record, that I thought this was a bad idea from the start.”
Her sister, who was busy praying at the door of the vault like it might have weakened since her last attempt seconds ago, whips around, the glare on her visor giving way to the furious lines of her profile.
“This was your idea.”
“Only partially. The part that didn’t get us locked in here.”
“Stop wasting your breath.” Her voice crackles with static on the last syllable.
Jordan lets her head drop back against the vault and tries to decide how to spend her remaining seconds of life. She can see herself partially reflected in the surface of her own helmet, her cheek singed from the barely-dodged blaster fire. The past twenty-four hours are still a jumble, a tangled heap of string, to her. She’s not sure she wants to relive them. But perhaps there’s an answer there, something she overlooked.
As a red 28% flashes, she thinks, it’s as good a way to go as any.
Oxygen at 27%.
Oxygen at 99%.
With the imprecision of a gloved hand, Jordan fumbled for the plasma blade on her belt and stewed, not for the first time, on how much she hated space.
Not the view from a spaceship—She was raised on that stuff, the spun glass colors of star systems as they blurred past the observation deck, miles away and close enough to brush. She even liked the tang of recycled air. It was a specific kind of staleness that reminded her of home. All of that was dandy.
It was the oppressive silence that she hated. All she could hear was the amplified rasp of her own respiratory device as she activated the blade—five inches long, acidic green, and not intended by its manufacturers for cutting through the hull of a spaceship—and watched it delve into the metal, disappearing up to the hilt. She had a certain appreciation for that, and the clean lines it left, the smoldering heat instantly quelled by the cold vacuum of space. It was like frying an egg in the arctic, watching it go from liquid to brittle. Melt and freeze. She just didn’t appreciate it enough to enjoy being suspended on the outside of a hostile spaceship by a cable half as thick as her arm.
“Buck up,” Vivian’s voice came over the com in a burst of static. “This one’s straightforward.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“Odds are, I’ll be right one of these days. Probably today. Thermal scans say the vault level’s unguarded.” Her appreciative whistle turns into a squeak of feedback over the line, and the luminescent line of Jordan’s plasma cutter flinched as she did. She scowled at the jagged line.
“That’s it. Com’s going off.”
“Wai–” The last syllable was scratched out as she found the dial that circled the left ear of her helmet and turned it to mute.
She was left with nothing but the echo of her breathing through her respiratory gear and the hum of the plasma tool, which she didn’t so much hear as feel through the vibrations it sent up her arm. A flick of her wrist closed the arc she had carved in the ship’s side, and with a well-placed kick, the cut-out divorced from its frame and floated languidly to the floor below. She was sent drifting in the other direction—lack of atmosphere, she thought, with the impression of grave personal insult. Another mark against space. Having to grapple with cables just to avoid spiraling endlessly off into the void reliably put her in a bad mood. She waited until she had drifted to the floor to untangle herself from the harness. Jordan felt the absence of simulated gravity the way someone else might feel the absence of a leg. The drag of syrupy weightlessness against every limb was stifling; just the knowledge that she wouldn’t be able to run if she needed to, or hear an attacker, made her feel exposed, hyperaware of how vulnerable her turned back was.
Beep. 95% O2, said the automated voice. It sounded a lot like, get a move on. So she did.
The switches that ran along the left side of the helmet were all small and similarly shaped, but on the third try—wrong, wrong. There we go—her display lit up in cool tones, the shades of blue and green that marked a low heat signature. The whole deck was cold, except the floor. It was the difference between a fridge and a freezer, heated minimally by the engine. No life forms. She crept forward, her back to the wall in accordance to protocol more than anything (not that there was a protocol for piracy, but it was the principal of the thing). The hallway was completely linear, lined on either side with vault doors, each with an intricate lock system. If this place isn’t storage, I’m a three-headed bantha.
She bent down to examine the nearest one, already unclipping the plasma tool from her belt (it still had a red heat signature, the only splash of color in the entire hall. She could barely feel the heat of it through her insulated gloves). DNA scans, passcodes, manual locks that she hadn’t seen in any star system outside the outer rim in the better part of a decade—given some time, she could probably figure out a cleaner way around it, but this wasn’t the time for subtlety. Anyone who hadn’t suffocated when all the oxygen got sucked out the person-sized hole in the ship already knew she was here, and she wasn’t itching to spend another afternoon dodging laser cells. Her favorite jacket was still smoldering from the last encounter.
The metal of the vault was even softer than the exterior, and the blade carved it like butter (she’d managed to smuggle butter off a ship once, with the caché of Oxygen capsules they’d been after, and had made the mistake of trying to eat it in stick form). She made an archway, practically edge to edge, big enough to step through. The oval of metal fell forward; she could see the capsules stacked up before it even reached the floor with a clatter. She turned her com back on.
“Vivian,” she stepped forward, an edge of smugness in her voice as she moved along the line, counting the capsules. “I made it. Stars, there’s got to be fifteen here, minimum.” More than I’ve ever seen, she nearly added before she could rein in her awe.
“Hey, say something. Why’re– oh.” She swore under her breath and reached for the dial on the side of the helmet. There was a brief sound of static, indicating the com was on, and then—
“Get out of there!”
“Stop yelling, I just—”
“Don’t you dare turn your com off again! I’m picking up motion a hallway away from where you are.”
She stilled, her hands still outstretched towards one of the capsules.
“Motion? We didn’t detect any other life forms. Are you sure—”
“Of course!” Her sister snapped. Her tone left no room for negotiation. “Get out of there, now.”
She whipped her head around the room, from the door to the capsules and back. They had a debt to pay off. These capsules went for a lot, and there were so many of them here—and they’d already came all this way. Her expression hardened. Leaving them wasn’t an option. She scooped up as many as she could carry in her arms and stepped gingerly over the smoldering edge of the hole she had carved. She had to duck, and when she straightened up again, she saw them.

Standing at the far end of the hallway, quite still, were three hulking robots—almost humanoid in their shape, but three times the size of any human she’d seen, built like bear on its hind legs. For a moment they both stared at each other, her eyes wide and the slits on the robot’s faces giving the impression of eyes boring into her. One of the capsules fell out of her arms and hit the floor conspicuously. She watched it roll a few inches and looked back at the robots. The one in the middle outstretched its arm—“arm” used here for lack of a better term to describe the large, metallic limb that tapered into a gun barrel. Panic choked up on her throat. She had to think; she had to do something quick, something clever.
She did none of those things.
She didn’t look back to see it hit its target, square between the robot’s eyes. Slits.
Whatever they were. It hit with a hollow thunk, not that she heard because of the lack of atmosphere, and because her pulse was pounding in her ears. Self-preservation drove her forward with every ounce of energy she had, and even what she didn’t, but antigravity dragged everything into a bound. The lasers didn’t have the same problem. The first blast nearly missed her ear and burrowed into the wall in front of her, spitting neon. Her heart thrashed against her ribs. The ship lurched, and she threw one hand out to steady herself; the other flew to her helmet.
“I’m not going to–!”
The sentence died in her throat, cut off by the close of rigid fingers around her shoulder. Not fingers. Metal. She forced her eyes up from the floor. But if they found her attacker, the memory was knocked out of her as a baton came down on her head. She was conscious just long enough to hear something crack. It sounded like bone.
Oxygen at 50%
She felt like death. She might have taken that as a good thing, since it meant she wasn’t dead, but she was too busy writhing to think much of anything. Except, maybe, a vague notion that she didn’t want to come that close to being dead again. The notion was dashed the moment she lifted her eyelids. The red O2 bar had dipped below half. She shifted, trying to prop herself up on her arm, but the moment she moved, agony shot up from her wrist and coursed through her whole body. She fell back to the floor, her lips pressed together to muffle the scream that tore from her throat. It wasn’t the first bone she’d broken, but experience sure didn’t dull the pain.
A shadow passed over her. Vivian was kneeling at her side, the crease between her brows visible despite how the scuff marks on Jordan’s visor made it hard to see anything on her right side.
“Finally awake,” said Vivian, over the com. She sounded a little breathless.
“You okay?”
“Think my wrist is broken. What…?” She trailed off, looking around the room. They were sealed in an empty vault, and she wasn’t sure which question to ask first. What happened? Why are you here? Did we get away? Where are the robots?
Her sister seemed to know what the silence meant.
“I came to rescue you, but—” she gestured at the door. “It didn’t exactly pan out. The minute I reached you, the—things got me. Robots or whatever.”
“Why didn’t they kill us? Are they taking us somewhere?”
She shrugged, but there was an edge of annoyance in it. “I didn’t get a chance to ask them as they were beating me half conscious and shoving us in here. What we need to think about is a way out of here.”
Jordan reached instinctively for her belt. “My laser tool is gone.” She swore. So did Vivian, as she pounded the door with her fists (which didn’t do so much as leave a dent).
Jordan pushed herself up, and this time made it vertical before a wave of nausea nearly flattened her again. She hunched over, head spinning, hand clapped over where her mouth would be if it weren’t blocked by the helmet’s respiratory gear.
“You should lie down. You were out for a while, probably have a concussion. I would give you a corrective, but, y’know. Those were taken, too.”
Jordan was only half listening. She had sunk against the wall and was staring at the vault door—past it, lost in thought.
“We’re going to run out of oxygen.”
Arcady, her bar was edging towards forty percent. Her eyes trailed across the ceiling, the walls, considering them. No breeches, nothing breakable. Just one solid plain of metal flowing seamlessly into another.
“I just want to say, for the record, that I thought this was a bad idea from the start.”
And so, she thinks—rolling the idea around in her mind as if weighing it—that’s the sum of things. No oversights, no answers, no way out. It leaves her with nothing but thirty percent oxygen, a broken wrist, and a throbbing headache.
“Wh–? Let go of me!” Vivian’s cry isn’t directed at her.
One of the robots has appeared in the doorway, its sheer bulk blocking it off from edge to edge. One of its arms is pinning Vivian down, arms behind her back, execution-style. A panel in its chest slides open, a gun extending from it, the barrel fixes square at her head. She tries to wriggle free, but is only shoved more forcefully to the ground.
All of this happens in the seconds it takes Jordan to stagger to her feet, supported by the wall, and to lunge forward. For an instant, the world moves like frames between a camera shutter. The gun aims at her as her fingers leave the wall, and she sways too far left; the shot misses by an inch. The inch is enough. She launches herself at the gun, flinging her whole body over it. Her weight drags it down, and the second shot hits the floor before it struggles back upright. She claws at the wires, veining into the panel, ignoring the flashes of light she can see in her peripheral vision.
And she wrenches it free. She swings it around and manages to loop her finger over the trigger. It snaps closed as she falls back. Jordan and the robot hit the ground at the same time—the later, with wisps of smoke rising as the cold licks the smoldering hole left by the blast of the gun. For a moment, nothing moved. And then, like the flutter of a shallow-beating heart, Vivian scrambled forever and dragged Jordan’s arm over her shoulder.
“Come on. Jordan, get up!” Her voice broke on the last word—a spot of scarlet had bloomed over her sides, spreading its tendrils. The fabric around it was singed black. Someone sobbed, a broken sob, the kind that shattered over a person’s tongue. It was hard to tell who.
Her lungs were burning.