Rattle

Troy Packham sits in his parents’ cold, porcelain bathtub. If you listen you can hear his breathing — harsh and rapid, faster than a runner’s. This is hyperventilation. Hyperventilation occurs when an individual (like Troy) breathes in more than 20 litres of air a minute. In comparison, the average individual breathes in less than five litres of air in the same time. This rapid breathing removes excessive amounts of carbon dioxide from one’s blood, causing weakness, light-headedness, dizziness, muscle spasms, and tingling around the mouth and fingers. Troy only notices some of these symptoms — his mind is elsewhere.

Many things may cause hyperventilation, including massive blood loss. Thankfully, death by exsanguination is not a common occurrence, except in soldiers on the battlefield. And suicides, of course.

While the colour of red blood on white porcelain is easy to notice, a more interesting curiosity is the rhythmic flow of blood from Troy’s wrists. This is a sign that he has severed his arteries rather than merely his veins. The rhythm is in time with his weakening heart. Harder to see is the cardiac arrhythmia and shock, but the smell of iron is pungent and hangs heavy in the air. Shock is followed by cardiovascular collapse, cardiac arrest and death. These can often be easily noticed, even if you’re not paying much attention to the scene.

Troy has not filled the bathtub with water. Even if he had, it would make little difference: he only grows colder until his last breath leaves him in a shallow, shuddering rattle.

Breath

Morning cloud rolls down the mountain, clammy cold to the skin, and the trees loom out of it at random intervals like teeth. His breath frosts the air as he climbs, snow and dirt crunching under his boots. On his back, the great sword is a familiar weight.

The village is far below him now, its black-scarred timber gates firmly closed. They were open when he left, the elder standing bowed in the road, the villagers clustered behind him.

“You won’t succeed,” the elder told him. “You are a criminal, not a hero. You cannot save us: at best, you have another few thousand breaths before the death you deserve.” The compulsion is hot in his stomach, a roiling, irresistible knot. He could snap the old man with one hand and the village’s strongest man with the other – he’s already done the latter, which is why he’s here – but it would achieve nothing. The stick-like ancient is clearly a perfectly competent wizard.

He knows how these things end: his breath rasping in his chest, his muscles numb and slow, his armour scorched and the blood sheeting from his wounds. He can’t tell whether he will be finally helpless before the great claws piercing his ribs or the savage heat of that ultimate exhalation of poisonous flame. It doesn’t matter.

He sets his teeth in a fierce grin, and quickens his pace.

Pulse Trading

The sign over the door read “Pulse Trading Emporium.” The advertisement had guaranteed in soothing tones that the experience would be pleasant, even positive.

This kind of thing used to be illegal or impossible. However, two breakthroughs in different sectors paved its way to acceptance and possibility. First was the landmark court case of Smith vs Evans, which resulted in the recognition by law of people’s inalienable sovereignty over their physical bodies. Thereafter, if you could show that you might continue to live a satisfactory life, as defined in White Paper #4C35A, you could sell any part of your body to benefit that life. Later cases confirmed that this ranged from the equivalent of renting space, as in modeling or prostitution, to the equivalent of selling goods, such as a kidney or a tooth.

The second breakthrough came from bio-rhythmics. What had been a highly esoteric semi-religious practice turned out to have practical benefits. When practitioners learned to save their breath, using modified Tupperware containers, industry moved in. Within a few years, the range of commodities that could be harvested from the human body grew enormously. Not only could you sell half a lung, you could sell 1000 breaths. There were controls, of course. No one could legally reduce a life below the recognized Reasonable Life Span of 70, and you had to be healthy, otherwise the breaths would be substandard.

All of which made this moment possible. I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

’tis by the heaving of the Chest

’tis by the heaving of the Chest”, goes the old rhyme, but it’s none that simple. In any case: the Chest is the last sign. If you wait for the Chest, well, you may as well wait for the next breath.

No, we watch at the Lip. The Windmills are the first, if you know how to read them right. We pour over their dithered printouts every night. There, a pattern? A reliable trend? A bird’s wing can pollute the reading. Read the Village instead: one by one, we succumb to belief. Fewer of us young ones at the table each time, until only the nodding old men are bending over the parchments. We no longer need convincing: we build our machines.

By the time the creaking Tower squatting on the Sternum admits the ground is moving, we are ready. Mothers cry, but we can’t wait.

“’tis by the heaving of the Chest
that the beginning can be guessed”

No more guesswork. A flock of white wings, sons and daughters barely of age, await the breath.

“Fly away on Giant’s breath
Find life and love and a true quest”

It begins with the distant whine of the Windmills, fully awakened now. Multitudes of birds erupt from their trees in shock, having forgotten how it goes. The village explodes then: shutters clatter, roof tiles fly. All that is not tied down is now up.

Then it comes: the great Wind, the Giant’s Breath, grips and carries our fine wings. We fly, the sea beneath us, free as the wind.

And beneath us, for the first time, we see the sleeping Giant we used to call home.

Pitch

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to present to you today.
We call our product Breath.
You will call it amazing.

I think we’re all agreed that, despite their best efforts, the science guys aren’t fixing the air. The newscasts say it gets worse every day. All the white lab coats and clipboards in the world can’t change the fact that going for a walk in the park is, well, no walk in the park.
Can you remember the last time you went outside with anything less than a level 4 helmet on? What the sun and wind felt like on your face?

So, here it is: Breath.
Looks like an egg, doesn’t it? Same oval shape, same compact size, same pale blue sheen.
You simply place it your mouth and wait. The shell of this little guy breaks down on contact with saliva and releases the twelve hundred specially programmed nanobots inside. They swarm your respiratory cavity and anchor themselves around the edges of your mouth and nose. Then, they activate and form a wall of air that lets them capture and sanitise anything you breathe in.
No more bulky helmets, and no more being trapped inside because of the warnings on the vidscreen.

Pardon? Yes, sir, it’s perfectly safe.
No, those charges were dropped.
I hardly think that –
That was proved to be an unrelated condition, on several occasions.

Oh, curfew already?
Thanks for your time.

Counting Breaths

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The first, I imagine, was unwilling. Drawn from me on a mid-winter’s night by the practical violence of a doctor’s slap.  A wet uncertain gurgle bubbled forth as pink lungs first tasted the world’s air. Then the clawing animal vitality, the desire for life, surged forth in a harrowing scream that pierced the still Highveld night. When that long cry sputtered and faded, it was for lack of breath not lack of passion.

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The last, I hope, will be willing. Embraced by me on a cool summer’s evening as I would an old friend. A smooth, deep inhalation and I will taste, one last time, the world’s sweet air.  Then a soft lingering sigh and the last life within me will join those soft summer breezes. The urge to life, its passions fulfilled and vitality expended, will stop all breath.

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The next, I know, is my choice. With twelve thousand I could read a good book and only a million are needed to write one. Instead I use twelve hundred to write this; two thousand to polish it; and just twenty to post it. You used thirty-eight to read it.

Pleasures

Edward liked that people drew breath to live.  He liked it even more when they stopped breathing.  When he stopped them breathing.  Nobody knew that, of course.  They would send him to jail or maybe stop his breathing.  They just didn’t understand, everyone always says ‘it’s the little pleasures in life’ but they would never include his pleasures.  On the whole, it didn’t seem fair.  But life is never fair, so Edward didn’t tell anyone about his little pleasures in life.  He would sit at gatherings and smile when people spoke of such mundane pleasures – reading the newspaper in the morning with coffee, watching a sports game with friends, watching their children play at the seaside.  They really knew so little of what pleasure there could be in the world.

But Edward was now beginning to understand why people didn’t include his pleasures when they spoke.  His pleasures were not pleasant to experience firsthand.  They were uncomfortable.  And a bit frightening.  The effort of drawing breath was taking its toll on Edward.  If someone didn’t find him under the rumble soon, he would die.  He would no longer be breathing.  His breath would be stopped.

Light hit his face and he was saved.  And as he drew in such sweet air, he began to forget the understanding that had began within him and smiled at the thought of a life filled with pleasures.