First Breath / Abi Marie Palmer
FIRST BREATH / ABI MARIE PALMER
Clove was distant again at breakfast. When the holo-disc’s alarm chirped five, she gave Nat a perfunctory good-morning squeeze around the shoulders, then sat up and tore open one of the bags of nutri-mulch they each kept on their own side of the futon for convenience. Wordlessly, she slotted the mulch packet’s straw through the valve in her breathing mask and contemplatively slurped her breakfast. By the holo-disc’s cold light, she looked ghostly and very, very tired. Nat hauled herself into a sitting position beside her. “Morning, sleepy head.” “Morning,” Clove returned absently, barely pausing her breakfast slurps. She was staring at the blank wall with the calculating intensity of a scientist on the brink of an epiphany. Her tousled hair shaded her eyes. She was in no hurry to be up—she didn’t have to be at Acriture HQ for two hours. Nat, on the other hand, was already running late. She stretched and jumped out of bed, gathering her work clothes from where she had flung them, exhausted, last night. As she smoothed out her heavy-duty overalls, she tried to make small talk with Clove. "Are you working on anything interesting today?" Clove shrugged. "Nothing that Acriture would approve of." Why will you never give me a straight answer about your work nowadays? thought Nat, a little irritated. She said, "But isn't that the whole point of this internship? To impress them so they'll give you a permanent job and we can move to a safer neighbourhood?" Another shrug. Nat sighed. She didn't have time to pursue the subject further. She pulled on her overalls, popped a denta-chew in her mouth to clean her teeth, and gathered her equipment. "Bye," she said, her voice hollow. Clove waved her hand once, not looking up from her reverie. “You got enough air to last the day?” said Nat. Instinctively, she checked her own oxygen canister as she asked the question. The level was lime green—it’d need a top-up by evening. “Yeah, plenty.” Clove didn’t even glance at her canister as she said this--she didn’t share Nat’s habit of fussing over her breathing equipment all day. “Good luck at work,” said Nat. To that, Clove gave no response at all, and Nat left the flat feeling uneasy. She didn’t understand what could have changed. Clove had been so passionate about her work at first. She had never stopped talking about how much she wanted to do Acriture Corp’s product design internship—in fact, she had insisted on applying for the opportunity despite Nat’s gently-spoken misgivings. Acriture employed Nat, and most people in the city—rich and poor. The internship paid almost nothing, and didn’t even offer an oxygen ration, like the permanent positions did. And with two hundred interns competing for one permanent job, Clove’s decision to take on the role had been a risky one. But it had been the only job Clove wanted. "The product design department’s basically the only place where you're allowed to have ideas—where you can make a real difference," she had said before she applied. Clove needed to believe she could make a difference to the world around her. In her lifetime, she had seen her city deteriorate from a thriving metropolis to a wasteland of pollution, crime and desperation under the stranglehold of Acriture Corp’s governance. After the Earth War destroyed most of the city’s old infrastructure, the Acriture corporation was the only organisation with enough resources to manage the necessary regeneration. But, in exchange, they demanded that the elected government concede, first, regulatory control of industry, then, in time, total legislative control of the city. Then came the breathing crisis. Seven years ago, Acriture had announced a city-wide Atmospheric Toxicity Alert. The city’s air had become so polluted that even the best filtered masks on the market couldn’t protect from the deadly smog. As public panic had grown and hospitals overflowed, Acriture calmed the populace with the promise of premium air canisters for every citizen (at premium prices, naturally). Of course, as the only surviving manufacturer on the continent, Acriture’s factories were responsible for poisoning the air in the first place. Everyone knew this, but Acriture was rarely criticized—after all, as Acriture frequently reminded the populace through their many sponsored media outlets, there is no alternative to progress. “Ha!” Clove had snorted when the slogan had appeared on the holopad for the hundredth time. “No alternative! There are thousands—no, millions—of alternatives to this crummy situation. How can we just give up on ever having clean air when we haven’t even tried! Has Acriture even tried one invention to clean the air? Of course not—why would they?" She huffed. "If they'd just let me at the right equipment, I know I could come up with something…" “I’m sure you could,” Nat had said. And she meant it. Clove had real talent—there was no denying that. Sometimes Nat thought that there was nothing she couldn't conceive of or create. Like when a heavy bout of acid rain had cut through their flat's roof. Clove had thrown together an alkaline shield (using supplies liberated from work) to protect their home until they could convince their landlord to fix the hole. And her ingenuity had made a name for her at her new job: after her first week, Clove had come home and excitedly announced that her design for a new, reusable nutri-mulch straw had been fast-tracked for production. “If I get a couple more products approved, I can get my own lab, and then I can make some real change,” she had said. None of the other interns had had a design produced so quickly. But that was months ago. Somewhere along the line, her attitude transformed. It was subtle at first—Nat had been too busy to notice it straight away—but then it became obvious. Clove had lost interest in her work. She had never exactly loved Acriture Corporation—who did? But now, she bad-mouthed it at every chance she got, and avoided ever talking about the progress of her internship. Nat didn’t want to be annoyed at Clove, but her growing uncertainty about the future was a constant presence in her mind, like one of those robot beetles that followed her at work, and occasionally crawled up her back if she had a slow day. Nat worked in the gargantuan Acriture distribution warehouse, repairing packing robots. It was lonely work and offered her little challenge. And, admittedly, her days of rewiring circuits probably weren’t going to change the world. But it had given her the money to move in with Clove, and ensure they both had enough nutri-mulch and oxygen to survive. That was enough for Nat—a fairly comfortable life, in a fairly safe neighbourhood, with her girlfriend. Anything bigger—saving the city, cleaning the air—was a pipe dream, and a dangerous one at that. Nat made the short walk to the transit hub and boarded the packed monorail for the warehouse complex. It was still dark outside, but the monorail’s strip-lights illuminated the weary expressions of the commuters. Their spectral reflections lined the windows of the carriage. Nat kept her head bowed, so her face didn't come into contact with the armpit of the stranger sandwiched beside her. The world outside became a blur as the monorail sped out of the city centre. The journey only lasted a few seconds. They came to a seamless halt at a vast concourse, and commuters piled out of the carriage and straight onto a fast-moving conveyor belt, which would whisk them into the heart of the warehouse complex. Please keep all hands, feet and luggage inside the red lines, whined a voice on the tannoy. You ride the conveyor belt at your own risk. Nat spent that work day distracted. At lunch, she sat apart from the few other humans who worked on the warehouse floor, doing her best to swallow her portion of nutri-mulch despite the cold film of slime it left in her mouth.. All the while, she wondered and worried about Clove's strange mood. In the afternoon, while she was repairing a lifting and carrying robot, her hand slipped, scattering a few nuts and bolts across the floor. Instantly, the security alarm sounded and red lights flashed angrily. "Hazard in aisle 389. Hazard in aisle 398," screeched a robotic voice from a speaker. Every robot working in the aisle halted instantly. Nat scrambled to pick up the pieces as quickly as possible. The lost profits from the delay would come out of her paycheck. At the end of her shift, she re-boarded the conveyor belt with a heavy heart. Clove was not home when Nat returned to the apartment. The holo-disc lay in her pillow, with the scribbled words gone out for some stuff, be back soon floating above it. Nat dropped her work gear in a heap by the door and settled down on the futon to await her return. To keep herself occupied, she scrolled through news on the holo-disc. It projected headline after headline onto the wall: Acriture once again wins Service to the City prize... Local man invents Acri-air alternative, goes missing... Is Acriture director’s election rival actually a carnivorous android? Nat sighed and switched off the holo-pad with a swipe of the hand. The front door clicked open, and Clove’s voice floated into the room. “Honey? I’m home?”. To Nat’s surprise, she sounded uncertain, but friendly. Clove closed the door awkwardly. She was lugging a bursting messenger bag, and wearing strange clothes that Nat didn’t recognise. She crossed the room to Nat and gave her a hug. And not just a now you’ll leave me alone hug—a proper I’ve missed you hug! Nat squeezed her around the middle and smiled cautiously, buoyed by the attention. “It’s good to see you.” Although they were only a few inches apart, Nat bent down and tossed Clove a packet of nutri-mulch—their dinner-time routine. Clove caught it, smiling queasily. Nat frowned. “What’s wrong?” Clove gestured for Nat to sit beside her on the futon. "I need to tell you something,” she said regretfully. “Actually, I probably should have said something quite a while ago.” Oh no, thought Nat. She tried to appear calm, unconcerned. “Oh really? Um, yeah, come to think of it, you have been acting a little, er, standoffish? Secretive, almost? You’re quiet at meals, and you just don't seem to have much enthusiasm—for work and stuff, I mean. And you’re not in your work clothes. What’s going on, Clove?” Clove sighed defeatedly. "Please don't be mad?" "About what?" "I got fired from Acriture three months ago.” Fired? Nat's mind clouded over. She could barely even focus on Clove's anxious face. All she could imagine was debt, possibly homelessness, oxygen poverty... We might have to use the oxy-bank air, thought Nat. It was just about breathable in the short term, but would still shorten their lifespans considerably. And how would Clove ever get another job now? Acriture was basically the only legitimate employer in the city nowadays. Oh, there were other jobs, but they were mostly semi-legal and certainly didn't come with insurance or retirement packages. "H-how did this happen?" Clove sighed wearily. “You know my friend, Clara?” She’d said friend in air quotes. “Well, I stupidly confided in her about some research I was doing. It wasn’t strictly... well okay, it was totally illegal. Against corporate interests, and all that. Well, it turns out Clara was struggling to keep up with the workload—making rookie mistakes, wasting company resources, you know—and people were starting to notice. So, she told me that I had to take responsibility for the mess she’d made, or else she’d report me to the Criminal Research and Design Commission.” “Illegal research? Clove!” “I know, I’m sorry! I was just so excited—I had an idea for an invention-." Nat shot Clove a serious look. “Unauthorised research is nothing to be excited about, Clove. You know any research outside Acriture's business plan is a grade one market sabotage offense. You could get ten years in prison—or longer!" “I know. But...” Clove spoke in hushed tones. “This could be huge, Nat. I mean..." she smiled slightly. "Groundbreaking, if I do say so myself.” "That is exactly what I am afraid of." "Look, I know this isn't really your way of doing things. And I know you're upset because I lost my job-" "And now the crime!" "And the crime. But…” Clove paused and steepled her fingers, clearly choosing her words carefully. “I think you need to see it to understand. Let me show you what I’ve been working on." She searched in her bag and thrust a sketchbook at Nat. Nat took it with trepidation. Inside were strange diagrams which she didn't understand or recognize. "This is what Clara threatened to report you for?" "Yes." Clove turned to a dog-eared page and pointed to a sketch. It looked like an intricate, swirling skyscraper—nothing like any building Nat had ever seen. "This invention could change the world, Nat. It really could." To Nat, that seemed impossibly optimistic. She knew better than to underestimate Clove, but she was also more than a little wary. Clove's excitement bothered her. Didn't she care that she could end up in prison? Hadn't she considered how… how… terrible (the word didn't even cover it) Nat would feel if they were separated? She subdued her worries and took a breath. "Okay... so what's this thing?" "It's a fungus tower. Fun-gus." She pronounced it carefully, since it was a new word for Nat. "You know the nutri-mulch that we eat? Well, I did a rotational placement at the mulch testing centre, before they fired me, and I found out from a junior researcher that they make the mulch out of something called a fungus. A mushroom, to be precise." "Huh." Nat had never given much thought to the origins of her food. "Yeah, and get this. The mushrooms in the mulch, they were grown in a factory lab, right? Only takes a few seconds. But I did some research, and it says that in the olden days, mushrooms used to grow right out of the ground. All by themselves! For free, Nat! I mean, can you imagine?" "I can imagine a lot of things, Clove. For one, you rotting in prison on business competition charges. It seems like you've found a way to undercut Acriture's nutri-mulch prices." “Oh, the free food part is only the tip of the skyscraper. I've been researching this mushroom thing for weeks—I even hacked into my manager's account so I could see the restricted research files. And you wouldn't believe the stuff it can do!” Nat couldn’t hide her indignation. “Hacking into restricted company files? Do you have a death wish, Clove? What could possibly be worth all this risk?” Clove grinned, and paused dramatically. "Two words: Clean. Air. For everyone, for free—all around the city, just like when we were kids.” Cleaning the air? Nat took a step away from Clove. "Keep your voice down! If Acriture even got a whiff of what you're saying, they’d… I don't even want to think about it." Clove put a reassuring hand on Nat’s arm. “Look, Nat. I know this is a lot. And you don’t have to have anything to do with it if you don’t want. I’ll never mention it again. But the project’s already underway. Has been, for three months, ever since I left Acriture.” Then she searched inside her bag and brought out a crumpled package. She thrust it at Nat. “I’d like you to come and see what I’ve been working on. I got you some non-work clothes, so the eye-drones can’t trace our Acriture ID badges. Best to be on the safe side." Nat took the package, fixing Clove with a you’re walking a dangerous path glare. "If I go with you," she said, in a voice that came out shaky, "that doesn't mean I'm part of this project." "Understood." "I just have to know what you've been doing all this time." Fortunately, the smog was so thick when they reached the street that no camera or person could possibly identify Nat or Clove. They walked in stiff silence for a while, before Clove spoke. "Hey, Nat?" "Hmm?" Nat murmured, half listening while warily looking out for street safety cameras. "Do you think we'll make it through this? As a couple, I mean?" Nat looked over at Clove and saw that her expression was serious. "Yeah, I want to. But we have to stay out of trouble." Clove wasn’t satisfied. "But what if I don't get another job?" She sounded serious this time. It was a real possibility, of course. With over a million unemployed people in the city, competition for jobs was, to put it lightly, bloody. And Nat’s meagre wages would not be enough to support them forever. Nat tried not to think about that. She gave Clove’s hand a reassuring squeeze. "Yes, I would stay with you if you never got another job. But it won't come to that—don't worry." Clove shrugged. "It really could." They were silent for a moment. Nat took Clove’s hand and squeezed reassuringly. It reassured her a little, too. They reached a nondescript back-alley. Clove glanced surreptitiously up and down the street before steering Nat into its shadows. They were about three blocks from their flat. The alley was unlit, hidden from traffic and pedestrians. Clove stopped in front of a rusted, graffitied garage door. It was chained and padlocked, and three industrial-sized bins stood in front of it. If she was only passing, Nat would have assumed that the building had long been abandoned. Clove squeezed past the bins and, with a key from her pocket, opened the heavy padlock and removed the chains covering the door. “Welcome to the lab!” She said, in slightly hushed tones. With some effort, she heaved up the door and ushered Nat into the dark interior. Ducking under the half-jammed garage door, Nat felt a little like one of the characters in the cautionary films about anti-corporate behaviour she had watched in school. The errant young people in those videos inevitably ended up getting kidnapped, or having their organs harvested, or meeting some other grizzly fate. Nat told herself to trust Clove. Clove quietly closed the garage door and pressed a switch. A row of bulbous overhead lights flickered on, bathing the room in a soft glow. Nat gasped. They were in a low-ceilinged concrete garage—a simple cubic room that Clove had completely transformed. Stacked up along every wall were glass tanks, each lined with soil and filled with strange growths. “They’re mushrooms,” explained Clove, following Nat’s gaze. Nat stood just inside the entrance, momentarily stunned. Clove beckoned encouragingly. “Come look. It’s perfectly safe.” Nat walked hesitantly towards a row of mushroom tanks and examined their contents. Some of the mushrooms grew in clusters, white and spindly. Some grew bulbous and stout. Some oozed liquids from their domed heads. Others fluoresced dimly, like apartment lights shining through the smog. "You made these?" said Nat, astounded. Clove shrugged. "I planted them. But with a little care, they basically ‘made’ themselves. I've been tending them since I left Acriture." Nat thought they were beautiful. She had seen a lot of things that she thought were amazing in her life: She had seen a robot that could make a photo-realistic portrait of its owner. She had seen a hover-bike that would take you on a guided tour of Acri-City. She had seen an Acri-bot that could spit out any conceivable flavor of candy requested of it. But she had never seen a plant grow before. "Can we eat them?" "Some," said Clove. "At first, I thought you could eat them all—after all, I stole the seeds from the nutria-mulch department. But some of them made me sick. Now I'm testing them on that synthetic digestive system over in the corner, before I taste them." "But you can eat some for sure?" "Yeah, you can eat these ones."Clove walked to a battered mini fridge in the corner of the room. It bore a red stamp which said property of the Acriture waste disposal unit. From the fridge, she produced a used nutri-mulch box filled with chopped mushrooms. She opened it and offered some to Nat. Nat eyed the grey morsel suspiciously. It looks very... solid.” “It’s fine.” Clove held her breath and popped a mushroom under her oxygen mask, then spluttered from the bitter taste of air that had crept in. She chewed and swallowed. “See, it tastes pretty good.” Then she handed the box to Nat, who followed suit. “Well?” Clove raised her eyebrows. "It tastes weird. But it’s better than nutri-mulch.” "Definitely better!" Clove agreed. From now on, we can grow all the food we need for free! No more dipping into our overdrafts just to pay for gross old mulch.” “If only we could get free oxygen as well.” “Ah!” Clove gesticulated dramatically, emboldened by Nat's approval. “But we can. This is what this whole laboratory was designed for! Prepare yourself, my love, for the most revolutionary, most rebellious... most criminal invention of the century. I call it... the oxy-tower!” Nat followed Clove's pointed finger to the far end of the garage, where a glass dome about six feet tall stood in shadow. Clove walked over to it and flipped a switch. The whole thing lit up. Inside the dome was an exact replica of the swirling tower drawing in Clove’s notebook. It was about the height of Nat’s shoulder. Growing all over the tower was a hoard of delicate green mushrooms. They stuck out at odd angles, and they had spread all over the floor of the dome, some even crawling up the sides of the glass as well. But it was what was around the tower that was most amazing. The air inside the dome was crystal-clear—not a whiff of smog to be seen. “It's a special type of mushroom,” explained Clove. “I bred it myself. It absorbs the poison in the air. I'm still working on making it one hundred percent effective, but it's close—cleans ninety eight percent of smog from the air. I know it’ll get there.” “Wow,” Nat pressed her hands and nose against the cold glass, examining the tower. “How can something so small clean the whole city?” “Oh, it's a miniature prototype. The real ones would be much bigger... when I figure out how to get them built. I’m in talks with a group—very secretive, of course; I don’t even know their names—who are interested in constructing them in the abandoned hangars downtown, where no-one will find them. At least, not until they have started to work.” “Secret groups, abandoned hangars. Right. This is all sounding a lot like one of those old spy movies you like.” “Oh, it’s far more exciting than those. This is really happening, Nat. In a year’s time, I think life in Acri-City will be unrecognizable. Do you want to try it out?” “You mean, get in the dome?” “Yes, it’s fully-functional. I’ve been inside many times myself.” Clove gestured to a narrow ladder, which leaned against the side of the glass dome. A second ladder ran down the inside. Nat hung back, unsure. Clove stepped over to a console beside the dome. It had clearly been constructed out of several cannibalized machines, no doubt stolen from the Acriture waste disposal center. Clove keyed in a sequence of numbers, and a small, rubber-sealed hatch at the top of the dome sprang open. Immediately, the rancid smog in the garage poured through the hatch and muddied the immaculate air inside. After ten seconds, Clove pressed more buttons, and the hatch closed. “Now watch.” Nat watched as the mushrooms in the dome got to work. They seemed to bristle from the outside air, at first shriveling and shrinking from the intruding poison. Then, as though inhaling simultaneously, they bloomed, stretching outwards and sucking the murky smog into their systems. Nat could see the grimy fumes disappear before her eyes. Then the mushrooms bloomed, visibly exhaling clean air. This cycle repeated until the contents of the dome was once again crystal clear. “It’s incredible,” Nat said admiringly. “It’s just nature. It’s the way things were, a long time ago. These things—living things—would give us clean air. And I’m sure this wasn’t the only kind there was. With enough time, I could re-discover so many lost species,” Clove mused. She opened the hatch once again. “Go on, climb in!” “Without my oxygen mask?” “No, go in with it. Once the hatch has been closed for a minute, the air should be clean again and you can take it off.” “I'm a little nervous.” “Don’t be.” Nat climbed into the dome. She could see the mushrooms swaying slightly from the influx of dirty air. The hatch closed above her. As instructed, she counted to sixty, still breathing through her mask. Through the domed glass, the lab looked distorted. Clove watched Nat from the outside, her face a mixture of pride and apprehension. Nat took a proper look at her, really taking in her bright, searching eyes and warm face for the first time in months. Clove pressed her hand encouragingly against the glass, and Nat mirrored her gesture. Then she gathered her courage, and took her first breath of fresh air in seven years.