Her lungs had stopped working, and were now burning with need yet refusing to accept what air she was trying to send them. Her chest was aching hard, her throat tightening painfully. Tory doubled over clawed at her neck, spasmed erect and then pounded on her chest to try to somehow get the oxygen in. If it could get hearts beating, it might be able to do something for her lungs. She hadn’t dared bring an oxyinjector with her which would fill her bloodstream with enough oxygen to get her through the attack. But especially devices like that had trackers in them, too. Almost everything that mattered on Mars did. She felt herself crumple down to the floor
Oh, no! I’ve got to- to- breathe! I’ve got to-
Suddenly she was jerked up off the cold floor. A blue clad arm came around her chest, pulled her up straight. If she’d had any sense she’d have struggled against it, but Tory’s mind was completely consumed with her need to breath, her chest was spiking with shooting pain and the corridor lights were strobing hard. She couldn’t do anything but try to let out a silent shriek-
“Relax,” a gravelly male voice told her, his own seemingly labored breathing loud in her left ear as he added instructions slowly, calmly.
“Go limp, and take slow, even breaths…”
Something popped over her mouth and nose. What came with it was cool, sweet and most importantly, rich air that forced its way down Tory’s tortured throat and into her lungs. Too slowly at first. She sucked it in greedily, could feel her hot breaths meet the cool dense air in the mask the man was holding over her face. Her chest heaved again, gratefully this time, filling, cooling. The burning, stabbing sensation started to fade.
“Good,” the voice soothed. “Keep going, slow and steady. That’s right.”
The arm didn’t move from its place over her chest. Tory felt the need to reposition herself, since the way she was being held had become pretty uncomfortable, but she didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the wonderful air. The moment her breathing was back to normal, she tried to pull away. In her effort the breathing mask fell from her face.
“I’m all right now,” she insisted, pushing at the arm to further loosen its grip.
It lifted away. Tory realized she was sitting down, on a bench of some sort, immediately twisted around to see who had saved her life. It turned out to be an old man, balding, with a trim white beard, wearing a blue maintenance workers uniform, one that was a bit tattered and bearing a few darkened grease stains.
He was tall, even crouched down, his face was long, in fact his whole body was he began to sit up to his full height. He towered over her, must have been easily over two meters tall, but rail thin. Much taller than her tiny on Mars one point six.
“Thanks,” Tory said a little unsteadily still looking up into that wrinkled face of her rescuer, meeting his green-eyed gaze.
She didn’t get up, worried that she might fall down if she did.
Those eyes were caught in a maze of wrinkles. He had to be a bornhere, probably the oldest she’d encountered since arriving, the oldest native she had ever seen really . Tory hadn’t yet seen any others who were more than middle aged.
“It looked like you could use a bit of help,” he replied, lines on his face repositioning as his thin lips turned into a grin, “Where’s your oxyinjector? I thought all you newlanders were supposed to carry one. Especially down here. This is robot territory kid. The air’s thin down here, even for someone like me.”
The old man pointed at the oxygen tank he was wearing over her shoulder, like the backpack she was wearing.
“I guess that’s something no one told me,” Tory told him.
Of course, no one had told her. She wasn’t supposed to be down here. Not that that rule had been drilled into like all the others about living in the Underhill had. All the hatches to the maintenance levels were locked, sealed and coded.
Which made her wonder what this geezer was doing here. Her eyes went over his old uniform. It wasn’t exactly like the one’s she’d seen since she’d got here. The symbols, cut of the cloth weren’t as sleek either. And again, none were as old as this guy. There was something suspicious about his sudden appearance, and so she slid along the bench back from him.
“What are you doing down here?” she asked. “Is something broken?”
Maybe in the air conditioning, Tory suddenly worried.
He seemed to consider that question for a moment, as though needing to puzzle it out.
“I’m not certain,” he offered, holding up a long finger, glancing up at the pipe lined ceiling of the corridor, before glancing back down at her. “But it could be something. I’ve been here a long time, and you develop a sixth sense for things going wrong, things breaking down even before they’ve started to. Or you’re probably dead, you just don’t know it yet.”
Was that it? Tory glanced around. Was there something wrong?”
“Is it the air?” she squeaked out, her gaze going to the tall man’s air tank.
He spared a glance at it, then turned is eyes back to her.
“No, no,” he told her. “The air system down here is just fine. Sorry for scaring you. Nothing’s wrong. It takes a while to get used to the air mix here for you newlanders. You’ll get used to it.”