The Great Oxygen Race
By: Annalee Newitz | Categories: Fiction

Sam woke up feeling like something horrific had lodged in his sinuses, which he gradually realized was a smell. Shit? Vomit? Biomass? Then he realized: The tent reeked of outer space.

“Sam! Nez! It’s drinking time! I got a fistful of nickel and we’re gonna party!”

It was Grinder, who had emerged from his suit for the first time in three weeks. The patched, crumpled Sutter RE-2 lay in a pile at his feet, its barely-functioning life support tubes leaking a broth of processed waste. Grinning, the miner beat his narrow, bacteria-scored chest, then punched the air and whooped.

Sam moaned inside his bedroll and turned to face the semi-permeable roof of their small tent. Overhead, light the color of recycled urine streamed through asteroid dust and across the distant surface of Ceres, where the lit domes of Bachelor City looked like splotches of macroscopic infection. The ground beneath his bedroll groaned slightly as the jets kicked in, keeping their raft from tumbling in its orbit around the planetoid. Lashed together out of junk rocks, belts, cables, and rebar, the raft was roughly 300 yards square, its upper and lower surfaces blistered with the tents of miners too poor to rent even a container in the City.

The three of them had set up camp near the edge of the structure, giving Sam a good view of the slum’s slum: A fringe of cheap emergency bubbles, intended for short-term life support, tethered to the rock with rope. People got them free from the government and cocooned inside when they’d gone ore-crazy. It wasn’t uncommon to see one pop, disgorging its pathetic contents in a matter of seconds.

Grinder grabbed the mouth of Sam’s bedroll and shook it.

“Sammy! I’ve got enough nickel here to buy us a ride down to Bachelor City and into any bar you want, all day! Let’s go!”

“Fuck you, fucking alcoholic bastard. We just got in from dust trawling a couple of hours ago.”

Sam rolled away from Grinder and found himself hemmed in by their tentmate Nez, her face split with a smile. Next to her missing front teeth, a single fang made of nickel glittered like madness. She punched his arm, using the force of the blow to uncurl into a standing position. “Not fuck YOU — fuck YEAH! Free booze is always fuck yeah!”

Still grinning, Nez ran a gloved hand across the patches on her scalp worn bald from ill-fitting pressure suits. She grabbed the only fancy shirt she owned from a peg over her bedroll. It was a soft, dark cotton with gold threads worked into the weave. Buttoned over the full-body insulation she wore, however, the shirt was bulky and lopsided.

Grinder scratched his infected shoulder until skin flakes floated through the air like bits of ash, then howled a laugh. “You look like low-class scum, Nez!”

Squeezing her tits, Nez tongued the air obscenely. “You’d suck it if I let you, bitch.”

While Sam clutched his head, Grinder roared with new enthusiasm. “Bitch, we are going to get DRUNK!”

The more they yelled, the more Grinder’s plan seemed like a relatively good idea. Sam pushed himself vertical and looked for a sweater in the crumpled mess of his trunk snapped to the tent wall. He chose a thick gray cardigan whose aroma was the least offensive, and snapped pressure overalls on top of it.

White light strobed the tent’s interior, revealing the spartan squalor of their lives: Three bedrolls, arranged in a starburst pattern around the heat unit. Velcroed to the half-dome’s thick, tinted lobes were flexible trunks full of everything they could call their own, from clothes and food, to spare parts for pressure suits and spectral analyzers. The brief illumination had come from a bubble car waiting outside.

“You already called a cab?”

“I think you know the answer to that question,” Nez said, her voice rising to a shriek. “Fuck yeah, Sammy!”

She’d somehow managed to smooth her shirt into a semblance of respectability beneath her overalls. Even Grinder had swabbed himself down with a damp cloth before redressing. Masks on, the three of them bent at the knees and shot themselves through the roof membrane, into the open mouth of the bubble.

The cab descended toward Bachelor City while Nez played with the cabin controls. First she checked the vending machine tray for stray food and smokes. Then she flipped the oxygen switch up and down. Sometimes you could get a free cabin of gas if the last customers had been running it full blast. The trick was to empty the ducts before the tank powered up and the meter started rolling.

Grinder watched nervously. “Get anything?”

“Jack shit.”

Sam’s tank was topped up, and he was pretty sure Nez’s was too. But Grinder had been out in the dust for days. And the guy wasn’t good at maintaining his suit even in the best of times.

“Do you need some oxygen?” Sam offered grudgingly.

Grinder made a show of checking his readout and gauges. “I should be okay.”

“Let me know, man. You’re buying me booze right?”

This produced another round of “fuck yeahs” and hand slapping that managed to last intermittently all the way to land.

When the cab settled at the edge of the City, Grinder threw some nickel at the paybox and they were disgorged onto fine sand. Hurtling toward the distorted surface of the City dome, Grinder landed ten feet above the ground, jamming his fist through the wall. It parted and closed around his arm like water as he drifted back down.

His voice erupted from Sam’s receiver. “I can feeeeeeel the gravity!”

The bubble car had deposited them at the south end of the dome, where most streets were kept at Martian levels. It was, Sam reflected, the only thing he missed about life back home. The gravity.

***

Ordering the best tequila they could get at the Barbary yielded an amber liquid in a slim transparent cylinder. Grinder slapped his nug of nickel on the bar and was instantly the most popular guy in the room. Now, six shots into the cylinder, they’d been joined by half a dozen other miners they knew from trawling. A few locals filled out the group, including a junk dealer whose duffel bulged with old air tanks and mauled sieves.

At the end of the bar Sam clinked glasses with Nez, who swallowed the shot with one ripple of her throat, exposed at the V of her glimmering shirt. She was drunk enough to ask weird questions, but sober enough to remember the answers later.

“I’ve always wanted to know something about you, Sammy.”

He drank his shot.

“Where the fuck do you come from?”

“Mars.”

“Everybody is from Mars — I mean where on Mars?”

“Not everybody is from Mars. Look at that junk dealer. She’s from Bachelor City.”

“You gonna answer the question?”

“South Pole. Little town called Kangly. Heard of it?”

“Why did you leave?”

Nez watched him, head against fist, her fang showing faintly between parted lips. There were a million sarcastic things he could have said about shitty ice mining towns, but instead he blurted out something that approached the truth.

“My brother died. Actually, my whole family died, but it was my brother who was paying the bills.”

“What the fuck, Sammy. That’s fucking horrible.”

She reached out a hand in sympathy, her fingers connecting with the bottle between them and pouring out two more shots.

It wasn’t that Sam avoided talking about his past — the topic just didn’t come up a lot. And he didn’t want to spend every day thinking about what had happened roughly this time last year.

It had been storm season on Mars, and the residential school was swaddled in a fog of dust. Despite network blackouts, an urgent message popped up on his classroom display. He left off reading the drill bit repair manual to check it.

The Martian Territorial Government regrets to inform you there has been an accident.

An oxygen line had ruptured, and the tents where his family and neighbors lived lost atmosphere. Suddenly the home he’d barely seen over the past five years was gone, and his brothers’ debts fell on his head. It was indenture or a one-way trip to the Belt. You could hear more or less tragic variations on Sam’s story from a lot of miners: The System Parliament was trying to encourage immigration by buying out indenture contracts, so a lot of people arrived on Ceres with little more than a pressure suit.

But Nez was different. She had credits from somewhere. Maybe she was a runaway from one of the nice domes, or maybe she had a little business on the side. Sam realized with a sense of relief that he was too drunk to try asking her about it.

“I have another question for Sammy,” Nez slurred.

He started to reply, but found himself kissing her instead, digging his hands beneath her pressure suit to feel the muscles in her lower back. With drunken fervor, he ran his tongue over the pointed tip of her fang and grabbed her ass.

“I got a few extra credits,” Nez said. “Let’s get out of here and find a room.”

Arms around each other, the two stumbled across the room toward the door. Outside, they could see the pale yellow wash of the Belt above them, a sea of dust. Dizzy, he scanned the uniform glow for a raft that could be theirs. But Grinder’s voice interrupted his intoxicated half-thoughts.

“No way! I will kick your fucking ass!”

Nez and Sam looked at each other. Had Grinder gotten into a fight already? It wouldn’t be the first time. The idea pulled their bodies in different directions: Sam toward the promise of a room far from the brawl, and Nez toward the raised voices. As their embrace broke apart, Nez grew an insane smile. Sam realized that he wouldn’t be getting laid tonight. Just drunker.

He threw a final, yearning look into the street. Three blocks to his left, Market ended in the reflective fabric of the dome. And just half a block to his right was a cheap hotel where he and Nez could have fucked all night for fewer credits than it took to fill his oxygen tank. He took one step in that direction, then shrugged and went back through the Barbary’s revolving door.

It wasn’t the fight he was expecting to see. Nobody had knives out. No blood had been shed; nobody’s pressure suit lay in ribbons on the floor. Instead, Grinder and Nez were at the center of a group of miners furiously yelling out bets — on something. Pushing between two men, Sam beheld what all the fury was focused on. Three handheld oxygen tanks, dented and worn, lay in the bottom of three wheelbarrows. Grinder was tying a long fuse to one of them, pausing to scream words laced with spit. Something about how he could outrace anybody, and was willing to prove it.

Nez grabbed Sam’s sweater in her fist, her face on fire with tequila.

“This is going to be the most fucking epic race in history. The great oxygen race!”

“What the hell?” Sam got out, before somebody shoved another shot glass into his hand.

“We’re going to race to the end of Market Street with these tanks, and then jump out of the dome before they go off!”

As smeary as he felt after that last shot, Sam was still fairly sure this wasn’t a good idea. An oxygen explosion could spread quickly in the dome’s gas. It was only a few years ago that half of Bachelor City had been flattened by a gas explosion and vacuum exposure. You could always tell who’d lived through it: They were the ones who kept their pressure masks attached to their collars like bulky, awkward hoods.

“I’m going to beat his ass!” yelled a man next to Nez. He was tucking a thick, flannel shirt into his pressure pants, getting ready for vacuum.

“I’m going to beat both of your bitch asses, and you’re going to buy me that whole bottle of tequila!” Nez pointed at an unopened glass container high above the bar.

Sam sat down on a bar stool and put his spinning head into his hands.

“You have to be our flag man!” Nez insisted. “You keep watch and see who wins!”

“No no no… I just want another drink,” Sam protested. But after another shot, he allowed himself to be pulled into the street again, where a surprisingly large crowd had already gathered. Nez, Grinder, and the man in flannel were suited up and swayed in what passed for standing positions behind their wheelbarrows.

Nez thrust a pair of bandannas into his hands and kissed him so hard that the skin of his lower lip tore.

With unsteady solemnity, a local in nothing but canvas coveralls held a catalyzer to each fuse. The chemically-stiffened strings glowed as blobs of heat ate their way toward the tanks. Sam threw his arms in the air, watching the red flags unfurl as his friends began stumbling down Market.

The crowd lurched after them, exchanging bets and cheering on whichever unsteady wheelbarrow jockey would get them a flake of nickel. Two blocks from the dome, Nez fell over, ripping off her mask to vomit copiously. This made Grinder double over with laughter, which infected Nez, who was guffawing so hard she could barely push her wheelbarrow forward as she struggled to re-attach her mask.

For a few glorious seconds, the three of them raced in perfect synchronicity down the street, a comet tail of mining scum and lowlifes flaring out behind. Everybody was watching. At that moment, they owned the dome instead of the other way around.

But then, a block from vacuum, Nez decided to play bumper cars with Grinder, which meant the two of them caromed into flannel guy. By the time they were upright again, their fuses were brittle curls of ash.

“Oh fuck.”

Sam barely had time to pull on his mask and dive into a doorway before the first gout of flame shot roofward. Nez’s body arced through the air as a flare of white light expanded, its edges wrinkling into reds and golds that surged over trees and overwhelmed the facade of a bar. Grinder was the only one who made it to the dome’s edge, hurling himself through just in time. His tank, frozen in the process of exploding, floated in two pieces before his eyes as he pinwheeled through vacuum, his suit failing to process everything he vomited and shit out.

Sam launched himself away from the flames, trying to escape the heat and sounds of screaming that penetrated his mask. More explosions shook the street as the fire found other oxygen tanks. Somebody whose whole body crackled with flame ran past him and collapsed on the street. Shredded foam and burning pulp spiraled through the air.

DEPRESSURIZATION EMERGENCY. PLEASE PUT ON VACUUM SUITS.

Sam heard it twice, once via loudspeaker and once via radio. A second of latency between. The warning seemed to echo inside his head. He stumbled and began to roll slowly through the air as gravity cut out. The flame had taken on a humanoid form, its vast torso as wide as the street, its arms like angry, mutant knobs rather than limbs.

And then the fire was gone and he heard nothing but radio. Overhead, the dome evaporated, transparent sheets of material decomposing into tatters and blobs floating over the planetoid’s surface. A nonpermeable emergency wall formed just outside the Barbary, but southern Market was completely exposed. Stupefied by shock and alcohol, Sam watched the dying and dead tumble down the path Nez and Grinder had cut with their wheelbarrows. An elderly man struggled to seal his suit and failed. A person swaddled in a safety onesie clutched the body of a man wearing nothing but canvas coveralls, his body swelling as she tried to drag him inside a house. He might live if she had a pressure bubble or tent in there. Took about two minutes to really cook somebody to the point of no return.

Sam pushed off into a slow bound toward ground zero. It wasn’t hard to spot Nez — she’d painted jagged reflective stripes on her pressure suit and they flashed as the sun sank. He knew it was too late long before he peered down at her, but refused to believe it until he was looking at Nez’s exposed head, blood misting away from a wound that had taken half the skin off her face and probably killed her instantly. He gradually lowered himself into a fetal position next to her body, arms locked around his bent legs.

“You stupid fucking bitch. Stupid, stupid, stupid bitch,” he chanted.

His suit sucked the hot tears from his cheeks, keeping him at the perfect temperature and pressure for the fifteen minutes it took the disaster relief ships to sweep overhead, pelting the ground with emergency tents. Each hit the ground as a small foil container, exploding outward to become an illuminated globe of atmosphere. Sam watched through his faceplate, flinching slightly every time another bubble of safe harbor popped into being.

Dozens of people had already crawled into the bubbles, and others were bringing bundles out of their houses to store in the tents where they’d be living until the dome was repaired — if it ever was. The south end of Market wasn’t exactly prime real estate.

In short order, there was a tent city of survivors waiting outside the wall, hoping someone would come to bring them back inside. As the hours stretched on without any further contact from the emergency teams, people began to roam in their suits again. That’s how a group of three miners who’d witnessed the race found Grinder, still wearing his reeking suit inside a bubble. With one stroke of a knife, they sliced the bubble open and yanked him out, struggling and screaming soundlessly. A second stroke of the knife to the front of his suit and he was a dead man.

When disaster relief teams came two days later with protein bars and a fleet of refugee buses, nobody said a word about what had happened to Grinder. A pair of investigating officers classified his death as “exposure, possibly frontier justice.” It was a blanket designation for homicides that they never planned to solve.

Sam was mistakenly processed as homeless due to the accident, and he didn’t argue when the government offered him one month in a subsidized living cube downtown. He didn’t even bother to sell the raft tent. The emergency payout was enough: It held him over until he found a job repairing mining equipment, just like he did back in residential school. He’d gone backward in time and space, returned to life on Mars. At the end of his shifts, Sam could almost drink himself into believing that. Until a glance at the dirt-illuminated sky reminded him. Until he felt the subtle tug of a pressure mask attached to the back of his coveralls.

***

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Annalee Newitz writes about science and pop culture. She's published work in the Washington Post, Wired, Popular Science, New Scientist, The Believer, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Currently she is the editor-in-chief of science culture blog io9.com, and she's the author of Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Duke UP) as well as co-editor of She's Such A Geek (Seal Press).