HYPOXIA IN THREE-QUARTER TIME
by Robert Minto
As the dropship plunged through a storm of lasered missiles toward a swirl of grey-green planet, Jander kept his eyes forward, drinking in the juddering silhouette of his squad leader. She was his crush, unspoken: Tabitha. There was no one with whom he’d rather plunge into the teeth of a crossfire. Insofar as he let himself think beyond the day’s fight, he liked to imagine he’d ride the post-adrenal post-combat wave to tell her so. Or maybe not. Announcing his feelings for Tabitha was a mission he’d been putting off for a long time (as these things were measured in the uncertain life of a soldier).
A tremendous shake cut short his meditations. He heard the shriek of tearing metal. An explosion threw him sideways with tremendous force, headfirst against the viewport, and he lost consciousness.
Jander dreamed he was spinning and woke to see it was true. He was on his back and opened his eyes to see the dropship view port webbed with tiny cracks. It was flashing with light, and he realized that light was the planet, coming into view and vanishing again in a fast, regular rhythm. He turned his head from the gut-wrenching sight. The dropship must be tumbling through space.
Or what was left of the dropship.
Instead of his squad, to his right was a tangle of shredded metal, fused together by force and crash cement. Painfully, he sat up. It felt like he’d strained every muscle in his core. He was not alone. Another figure, hugging its knees, leaned against the crumpled wall across from him.
In his helmet, he was pinged on the squad channel.
“Status report?” said Tabitha, voice calm.
“I’m alive,” he croaked.
“Glad to hear it, soldier,” she said. “Hold tight and maintain radio silence. We have limited air.”
He nodded. He demagnetized his boots, inched forward, and dragged himself around until his shoulders were pressed, like Tabitha’s, against what remained of the wall. He glanced sideways at her, and she moved her knee a fraction of a centimeter to touch his, for a moment. They began a vigil for their own asphyxiation.
After a while, Jander began to sweat. He could feel his heartbeat in his temples, faster minute by minute as his heart labored to oxygenate his blood. He had to work to stay awake. He stared at the rutted metal floor. The only light came from the planet flashing by the viewport, every few seconds. Shadows appeared and vanished like stop-motion animation. He traced the shadow of his knees, arms, head. Beside his shadow Tabitha’s nodded occasionally as she too fought for consciousness. He watched her shadow and thought how graceful she was even in death. He wished he’d spoken of his feelings before oxygen became too precious to spend.
Tabitha’s shadow stood up. Jander blinked and glanced left, but her body remained immobile against the wall. On the floor, her shadow stretched its arms above its head, looked around, and held out a hand to his own shadow. He watched, disbelieving, as his shadow slowly unfolded too, taking shadow-Tabitha’s hand and rising to its feet.
Jander’s heart-beat sounded in his ears. It sounded like a timpani, and then he heard strings too, shaping his bio-rhythms to the three-quarter time of a waltz. He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling them hot against the back of his eyelids, and when he opened them saw the two shadows dancing. They spun in each other’s arms across the shattered ballroom of the dropship’s surfaces.
Music and movement swelled to fill his senses until his eyes drifted closed for the last time.
Not for the last time.
His whole body ached, but he was alive. His eyes cracked open on a painfully bright room, plastic curtains, a face looming over him in a blue mask.
He fell asleep and woke and fell asleep again to the motion of a gurney rolling fast down a beige hallway.
Into warm darkness insinuated the sound of a beeping heart monitor. He felt the dull ache of an IV on the back of his wrist. Again he opened his eyes. This time the room was dimmed, the plastic curtain pulled. A sick-bay, safety.
Slowly, feeling as if three gravities were holding him down, he turned his head on aching neck muscles. Right: a wall, a fire-extinguisher, an IV-pole. Left: a line of other gurneys, the one next to him occupied by Tabitha.
He saw her face in profile. Her eyes were half-shut, and her lips and cheeks were mottled blue. He remembered their two shadows dancing. If only it had been real, but he knew it was a hallucination. When he could speak again…
His gaze traveled down Tabitha’s gurney and rested on her fingers, gently curled on her blanket. He felt sleep coming for him again. Just before he was swallowed by oblivion, he saw a finger move, tapping ever-so-slightly in three-quarter time.