The planet Antelos was lush, vibrant, and full of life. Its atmosphere was made of an earth-familiar mixture of gases, with one uniquely alien exception: halivium.
Halivium was not toxic, not initially, and not for everyone. But in a certain percentage of the population containing a particular gene sequence, halivium could at some point in their lives become poisonous. So poisonous that they had to wear gas masks everywhere and at all times to prevent their bodies from breaking down. Sleeping became uncomfortable. Eating difficult. Conversations a struggle.
Despite improvements, constant use of a mask altered the facial structure of long-time users. What with the sweat, the chafing, and the constant fear of a defective filter, most individuals with haliviutosis were eventually driven to emigrate.
Kairos Kintep was 14 when he came down with a common cold that triggered active haliviutosis. After one year in an air mask and at the outside edge of sanity, he took himself to the largest ship at the docks, hoping for a one-way ticket off planet.
The ship was called the Mulankatari, a gypsy vessel captained by Lady Jian. Kairos could see her standing on the dock wearing bold colors and a penetrating gaze. As Karios pushed through the crowds, other people’s elbows clanging off his gas mask, Lady Jian caught sight of him, cocked her head, then waved him closer.
When he reached her, she peered into his desperate green eyes. “You want leave planet?” she asked.
“Yes,” Kairos said, resisting the urge to beg.
“What you skills?”
“I’ll do anything you need done.”
Lady Jian put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrow. “What you skills?”
Kairos’s insides clenched. “I learn quick,” he said. “I work hard.”
His head itched with embarrassment. “Noodles, tea, and mangar brownies.”
“Uh, I guess. I’ve swept the floor once in a while,” he said.
“You play instrument?”
His face went red. “I can whistle.”
Lady Jian’s lips tugged upwards at the corners. “That good.”
Kairos told himself to thank her for her time and get out of there, but his feet were stuck. He couldn’t say anything. He stood there sweating, caught between walls of hope and despair.
“Ok,” said Lady Jian. “We give you try.”
His eyes filled with tears. “Thank you.”
She grinned and shrugged her shoulders. “What you name?”
“You got momma?”
“Ok. You go say goodbye. Get you stuff. Come back.”
Kairos was back in an hour, a small tote bag over his shoulder, his grandmother’s tears on the leather straps of the mask. He stood in front of the Mulankatari, wrapping and rewrapping his fingers around the band of his tote. Sweat pooled on the glass hovering before his eyeballs. He longed to rip the mask off.
Gypsies in bright clothes trooped in and out of the cargo door, carrying boxes and instruments and odd-shaped packages. Lady Jian appeared. She waved to him and Kairos walked over, his breath sticky.
“You got stuff.” She nodded at him, then turned her head. “Hey Shan. Come here.”
A boy Kairos’ age jumped over a bunch of boxes and ducked his head at Lady Jian. “Ya, Queen?”
“This Kairos. He sweep, whistle, make brownies.” Her teeth flashed. “Good yah? You help him.”
Shan shot Kairos a narrow-eyed glance, his lips down-turned. “Ya, Queen.” Then he turned on his heels and walked into the cargo bay. Kairos didn’t know what to do until Jian shoved him lightly in the back. “You go now. Learn quick. Work hard. Yah?”
Kairos grinned, his smile hidden beneath his mask. But he thought Lady Jian saw the expression in his eyes. “Ya, Queen,” he said, then hurried after Shan.
He caught up and walked abreast of him, not saying anything, just watching. Shan didn’t look at him and didn’t speak. They crossed the whole cargo bay before he waved his hand vaguely and muttered, “This is cargo bay.” They entered a narrow hallway lit with yellow lights and tapestries. Small rooms opened on either side, hung with tubular hammocks. They entered the third one on the right and Shan opened a small locker. “Stuff here,” he said. Then he pointed at one of the tubes. “Sleep here.”
Kairos nodded and shoved his tote in the small compartment. He touched the hammock, felt the material spring under his fingers. “Good,” he said.
Shan left the room. Kairos hesitated, then rushed after him. The boy walked fast. It was getting hard to breath. Kairos knew the signs. He tugged on Shan’s sleeve. “Wait, please.” Then he yanked a replacement filter from his pocket, slid the airlock to “on,” replaced the filter, and took the airlock mode off. He took a deep breath.
“Okay,” he said, giving Shan the thumbs up.
The boy looked at him for a moment, then walked on at a slower pace. “This is theatre,” he said, motioning at a circular room with a stage and rows of seats. “We put on show.”
“You perform?” asked Kairos.
Shan nodded. “Ya. Juggle ten balls and breathe fire.”
Kairos whistled in appreciation. Shan shrugged, but his face shone and his lips curved with pride.
“What you do?” Shan asked.
“Uh,” Kairos laughed, “I don’t have any talents, unless you count breathing in an air mask. And I’m all fed up with that.”
Shan squinted at it, then tapped the end with his finger. “How long?” he asked.
“How long have I had this? One year and five days.”
“Two day more,” said Shan. His forehead creased. “Ship air clean then. You make it?”
“Yeah,” Kairos grinned.
Shan nodded. “Good.” Then he showed him the rest of the ship.
The Mulankatari took off three hours later, jetting out of the halivium infested air of Antelos and back into outer space.
In two days the filtration system did its work. Lady Jian floated through every room with a sensor, then led Kairos to the theater and situated him on the stage. The rest of the crew filed in and hovered above the seats. Lady Jian turned to them, smiling. “This Kairos. He whistle, sweep, make brownies. He breathe mask one year seven Antelos days. Now he take off. Breathe our air.” She beckoned Shan. “You come. Kairos?”
He looked back at her, eyes swimming, hands shaking. His heart jumped and squished. Trembling, he found the clasp on the back of his head and clicked it loose. It sucked off his skin. Pain seared over the rub marks. Cool air whisked sweat from his face. He flung his shoulders back and inhaled.
The crew burst into applause, hoots, hollers, whistles, and yells. Shan grinned and gave him a thumbs up. “Good?”
He was better than he’d ever been. He could breathe free. He could do anything.