Last Breath Day
Every day is the same: we get up, we work hard, one of us dies. We call it Last Breath Day. It hasn’t been me yet, obviously, but our numbers are getting down. It’ll be my turn soon enough.
Who are we? We’re the human slaves, the last survivors of the Thrup’s invasion of our solar system. Where are we now? I really don’t know. The nearest star is a faint yellow orb. It might still be Sol. We travelled about three weeks to get here, but I don’t know if we were travelling faster than light.
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 ration shortened for that.
Jed was just making sure that our ever-watchful 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 air on 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 thirty-eight 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 Thrup are often very accurate at who they kill: organizers, rebels, troublemakers…
But somehow they missed Kayla. The next day, thirty-seven 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 Thrup had made a mistake and would catch it. But when i was helping out of her suit, I noticed that Kayla’s air tank had ‘Glint’ stencilled on it.
Later that night she confessed to me that she’d quietly switched air bottles with Paula that morning, then taking her ration card from her body later. As ar as the Thrup were concerned, they had killed Kayla. This was Paula.
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.
It’s a hard life, with few distractions. We try all kinds of little subversions, ways of secretly rebelling against them, but nothing that'd get us killed. Painting our helmets is one way. 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 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.
Everyone remembers where they were when the first rock hit Earth. I was on Mars, a seventeen year old, just qualified for local commercial flight – not passenger, just cargo. My biggest worry was that I wasn’t life-support qualified yet. Then it happened.
That first rock landed in the north Pacific, not far from Seattle. It wasn’t the tsunami it unleashed that was so fatal, nor even the earthquakes when the fault lines gave. It was all the rain mixed with ash from suddenly active volcanoes. The northern hemisphere wouldn’t see sunlight for at least two years, maybe three. That one rock was enough to finish life on Earth, and probably everywhere else, if you were patient.
But the Thrup weren’t patient, and were keen to show that it wasn’t a random event. At least four more rocks hit the planet, mostly in the north, but one in the southern Indian Ocean was big enough to ensure that eastern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and western Australia were permanently depopulated.
Earth was made unliveable in less than a week.
The only survivors were those of us offworld at the time – in one of the orbital colonies or on the Moon or Mars. And most of us didn’t live much longer.
Once their mammoth ships arrived, they tore apart the orbital colonies. It wasn’t quick, and some of it seemed almost like they were playing games, trying to knock detritus into colonies. They gunned down the Moon colonies too, but never seemed to know about us on Mars.
We did what we could to hide our presence. All comms were already encrypted and limited to line of sight or hardwire-only traffic. We buried our colonies, hid the airlocks beneath deep awnings covered in dust and sand. Tracks and trails were erased. Blackout curtains and curfews were mandatory, the death the penalty for violating them.
They did a low fly-by of Mars. We had left out some rovers and automated equipment, hoping that was enough to fool them into thinking we were pre-colonial. They destroyed all of it, but never found any of our bases.
Mars was close to self-sustainable by that point. We probably could have waited them out, but for those damned Lunarians. At least one lunar colony, maybe more, had escaped notice – at first. But the Moon wasn’t quite self-sustainable, and Earth was no longer hospitable to the colonists. In the second year, they fled to Mars.
The Thrup took their own sweet time dealing with the fleeing Lunarians. Once the idiots thought they’d actually escaped, they tried to contact us on open frequencies, even after they landed. Of course we didn’t reply, but the Thrup then knew enough to come looking for us.
I don’t know why they didn’t just kill us immediately too, but here we are, in deep space, slaves working for our air.
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. I was seventeen, scared shitless, and alone. She’d apparently been widowed in the attack. It was only later that I ended up with her. Still not sure how that happened.
Kayla and I have 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 Thrup 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, no fourth, 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 …”
-- 30 --
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