Every day is the same: we get up, we work hard, one or two of us die. It hasn't been me yet, obviously, but our numbers are getting down. It'll be my turn soon enough. We call it Last Breath Day.
There were almost three hundred of us in the beginning, the remnants of the Mars colonies. We were given clear instructions: work to live.
Yesterday was a big assembly day. Whatever they've had us building, it's now in five large pieces — maybe twenty kilometres a side — with perhaps another twelve or fifteen small ones orbiting them. Two of the bigger pieces finally joined together.
Near the end of our workday, Kayla Wilkins came over and touched helmets with me, which should have given our conversation privacy.
"I can prove it. We're not in Sol anymore. That star," She pointed at the bright yellow-ish disc that was the largest object in our black night, "is Tau Ceti!"
"Kayla, you imbecile, your comm channel's open!" Jed Barkly's voice came through clearly.
Leaving the comms open was a foolish mistake and everyone, and I mean everyone, figured she would have her air shortened for that. Jed was just making sure that our overseers would know who to punish for the information spoken.
Kayla's about a decade older than me and was an astronomy post-doc before the invasion. We all figured she'd be useless at hard labour and face her last breath day early on, but here she is.
Some still say she's useless, but I don't know. They keep letting her live. She must be doing something right.
Of course, they hadn't always been too discrete in who they killed.
Once it became obvious that they were going to kill each of us once they didn't need us, we tried collectively to slow down, to give ourselves a little hope at living longer. Three days in a row, they shorted five of us. By the second day we were back working at it, full force. They still killed five. And the third day, too. Lesson learned, we didn't try to slow down anymore.
We have an agreement of sorts: on your Last Breath Day, you turn off comms. There's no need to terrify the others, and frankly there's more dignity in being remembered as a hardy co-worker than as a screaming freak begging uselessly for your life.
There were only eighteen of us left, the day Kayla mis-spoke. At dinner that night no one would sit with her but me. We know they monitor us. The Thurp are often very accurate at who they kill: organizers, rebels, troublemakers...
But somehow they missed Kayla. The next day, seventeen of us came home, including Kayla, but not Paula Glint. She'd died silently working on some task somewhere in our floating hell. Initially I thought the Thurp had made a mistake and would catch it. Some time later, I noticed that Kayla's air tank had 'Glint' stencilled on it.
Last night she confessed to me that she'd quietly switched air bottles with Paula that day, taking her ration card from her body later. I didn't know what to do, what to say. Should I turn her in? But to who? Besides which, she was letting me sleep with her. I didn't want to lose that.
I owe Kayla my life. Two days ago, Kayla helped me finish a bunch of tasks. Each day we get our instructions through a task queueing system in our suit HUDs. You have a task and a duration. Do the task within the duration, get assigned a new task. Fail to do the task ... well ... learn to breath very shallowly. I'd gotten behind, couldn't get two pieces to fit, was sure I was going to die.
Barkly was cackling at me. He was shift boss and could see all the reds I was loading up.
"Faster boy," he'd shout into the comms, unnecessarily drawing attention to my failings. "Faster or get ready to die!" He almost sounded gleeful. "Don't forget to turn your comms off, boy! We don't want to hear you squirm."
Kayla had come over and taken on three of my tasks. I finally got the two pieces to align, it wasn't hard once Jed's pressure tactics faded. But I worried that Kayla would pull a last breath day - helping me had hurt her productivity.
Kind of shockingly, yesterday was Jed Barkly's Last Breath Day. He didn't turn his comms off, the bastard. His last words had been, "Kayla, damn you!"
That night, Kayla told me that Jed had been secretly nursing a dislocated shoulder. It had stopped him from being able to complete an assigned task. Kayla had had to crawl into that hole, brace herself and tighten down that joint. She had claimed the completion. Jed had failed to do his task.
It's a hard life, with few distractions. We try all kinds of little subversions, ways of secretly rebelling against them. Painting our helmets is just one. Kayla helped me decorate mine, a fancy dragon head design on both sides. She has a simple design, just one stripe, no, she's added another one: two stripes on her helmet.
I'm sure that we all think we're fighting the good fight, the last remnants of humanity not going quietly into that cold, dark night.
I do remember seeing Kayla among the survivors when we first were captured, but we didn't talk or really pay any attention to each other. I was still processing the loss of my family; parents and brothers. She'd apparently been widowed in the attack. It was only later that I ended up with her. Still not sure how that happened.
We've got a unique problem developing, pardon the pun.
Kayla's pregnant, probably the last human ever to be so. For the first few weeks, she did everything she could think of to terminate it - asking people to punch her in the stomach, injecting weird concoctions, fasting, doing crazy exercises... Still, she's pregnant. Almost six months now. It's hard to hide. She can barely fit into her spacesuit.
Her productivity must be going way down. She can't bend as well, move as fast, or climb into tight spaces ... hell, even her stamina is down.
One thing's for sure, the Thurp aren't going to allow humanity to grow in numbers, not even by one.
Today's tasks seem to be about fitting smaller pieces to the new large assembly. We're working in small groups today. My assembly team is just me and Kayla. I'm really not happy.
I don't want to have to compensate for her slowness, her immobility, but I don't want to appear to be missing my deadlines either. Ya gotta earn that air.
What the ... ? I'm getting a red light? Air is critically low and falling fast? That can't be right. Oh God! It's me ... it's me ... I'm the one they're shorting? No! It can't be ... I've got a full task list today.
Maybe it's a micro-puncture? Where? Where?
"Kayla, come here! Is there a tear in my suit?" What's she doing? She's coming over too slowly, she's distracted. She's adding a third stripe to her helmet! "Hey, stop smiling ... this is serious!"
We touch helmets.
"So loverboy, can I take your ration card now or do I have to come back when you finish squirming?" she says, smiling. What the...? I ... I don't understand. "Don't worry, I'll still name the baby after you."
She pushes off. I can't hear her but I can see she's laughing. She twists away and I can see my name stencilled on her air tank.
"Damn you, Kayla! No, I won't turn off my comms channel, you little ..."
YOU ARE READING
Last Breath DayShort Story
The last remnants of humanity are slaves, working for their air. Have a bad work day, it'll be your last breath day. This story appeared in the "Alien Invasions" short story anthology published by Flame Tree Publishing in 2018. All rights have rever...