Air to Breathewritten by Kelly (theshadowswhisper) - inspired by an original artwork from nhaingen
Oh god. Oh there's so much blood. You don't how there's suddenly so much—red, everywhere, jarring and bright as a coat of wet crimson spattered over the rocks. Dots of sickly warm red dots across your suit, painting you with dark, flying droplets.
And it doesn't connect in your brain at first that it's coming from Stan. From the ragged, bleeding hole where his elbow used to connect to his forearm. And from the severed limb that's currently dangling from one of those thing's mouths. The freeze-dried granola bar you'd had hours ago, which is the last thing you can recall that you'd eaten, threatens to clamber back up from your stomach, and you look away from the sight of the rapid, gnashing creatures fighting over a scrap of what used to be your best friend.
Oh god. You never believed in hell, but maybe that's where you are, after all. There is nothing to breathe and the rocks are painted red with the blood of your only friend in this airless, rocky world.
The creatures snap at you with their sharp, foaming jaws, and your heart thu-thumps in your chest even louder than the blast of your hand-weapon—which you are firing without aiming, because your hands are shaking, and fuck—you always were a useless shot, anyway. Stan's face goes pale, gleaming eyes behind his helmet visor fourth and fifth moons of Marklar, reflecting lighted crescents behind the protective dome of fire-retardant silicone-plastic. He's stranded alone on an alien planet with sick-moons in his eyes, and god—god this is all your fucking fault.
You're moving. You never consciously made the plan to move, but you are doing so now, darting and weaving as you charge toward Stan. And then you're dragging him. Taking his hand (his only remaining hand, you realize with the kind of shock that sits—a cold brick deep in your stomach), you yank him behind yourself, stumbling a bit because of your clunky Space-walk boots. He allows himself to be lead, as if he were in a trance, and suddenly you're going to start screaming.
You feel the sound before you hear it, shrill and animal as it rips its way between your vocal chords, and you're sobbing, as a helpless infant: loud and shuddering and shameless. The world blurs with tears, even as you continue to run with desperate, mechanical footsteps. You -shriek- as a specter in a haunted stretch of eternity, wordless with terror so overwhelming as to haunt the same place for a century.
Because without meaning to, you're just starting to do the math. You're a med student, in another life (not this life. In this life you are only a strange, twisted visitor with no air for breathing left in his lungs). You'd know in your sleep, and indeed, the knowledge occurs as if from a half-remembered dream, that the average adult body has approximately six liters of blood. Stan has to have lost at least two—two, gushing from the dark red-soaked sleeve of Stan's spacesuit—you feel sick. Two liters. He needs help, or you don't have long. Or he doesn't, and the numbers are against him.
But the thing is, there isn't any help. Not out here. They're not going to help you, certainly, if the howling creatures they've sent after you are any indication, and how far away is anyone who would, who could? Hundred of thousands…or thousands of thousands of miles? You don't have thousands of thousands. You don't know if you even have hundreds, considering the way Stan's bleeding. Oh god. Fuck. GOD.
The idea of Stan bleeding out white on an alien planet makes your stomach fill with acidic bile that you wretch, doubling over to heave and cough. You've come to a precipice, a high, jagged cliff that sharply inclines into the craggy heights looming above. You take the only second's respite you have to gag on your horror before scaling. You yank Stan behind, dangling him along like a bobbing balloon upon a string. And he's floating higher and higher, less weighted to the earth with every step; you know it. How long before he's gone into the atmosphere, and you're alone on a hostile planet filled with snarling creatures only inches away, and help that's gone for miles?
"C'mon, Stan! Stan, just a little while longer, we're almost there!" You taste the tears on your own face, and hear the panic in the raspy, hoarse voice that does not sound like your own. Stan follows you with the trust of a child, wincing as he struggles to keep up, even as his complexion continues to drain.
You don't know how high you climb, but by the time you stop, you realize that the things have stopped following. They scrabbled awhile amongst the rocks below, but soon, they must have returned to their masters, likely being satisfied that you were either dead, or far enough stranded that you'd soon be. Stan's breathing issues in shuddery gasps—eyes rolling back and lids half-shuttering over pupil-less white as he goes into shock, and you tie off his wound best you can, mutter comfort to him that you know he cannot hear.
"You'll be okay, dude. They're coming for us. Don't worry." Meaningless, but you say it anyway with the kind of urgency you think comes from knowing you have nothing to offer but the hope in your own frail words.
You tear a scrap from his tattered sleeve, knot the material around the slippery, bleeding stump where Stan used to have an elbow, then a wrist, and then five fingers. Your fingers shake, and your protective gloves are horrifically dyed the oily, slick rust color of half-dried blood as you toil to bind the injury. When these unsteady hands brush against the protruding spur of bone poking ghastly abrupt between the bleeding meat, Stan gapes, and makes the sound of a wide-mouthed fish caught wriggling on a hook. The exposed nerves in the chilled, white bone send a chill straight into his fraying nervous system—and you hate every medical textbook you've ever read, because watching these things happen to him is like a like vivisection where you can't move, only watch as your entrails fall out of your open sides.
You pull the makeshift tourniquet tight-tight-tight, and Stan trembles against the rocks, his back arching as if his limp body is being tugged up from the earth for a moment by divine hands. You tie the open end of his suit into a knot, over the grotesque stump left of Stan's arm to offer it a bit of token protection from dirt, and that's it. You almost laugh at how little it is, how very few things ways there truly are for you to help him. He's your Super Best friend, the most important person in your life—and he's watching you with fading blue eyes—and god. God, there's fucking nothing else you can do for him.
"Thank…you," he wheezes, and you punch the ground and choke upon a harsh sob as you do (or is it a laugh? You can't tell; your throat is closing up and sound is like dust in a vacuum), because GOD, he shouldn't be thanking you. You did this to him. If it hadn't been for you…neither of you would have even been here. Here in hell, where…Stan was going to die. Fucking die, as you just sat here and watched and did nothing.
If he'd been here with anyone else, he would have lived. You're the fugitive, and you've implicated him. You've killed him, good as if you'd torn his arm off with your own hands—and you are so-fucking-sorry. But you can't even apologize, not now.
You stare at him, bewildered. Of all the things you've considered happening—you're a rather analytical soul, and tend to consider your alternatives before making any decision—but this was never one you'd conceived of. Stan always seemed so permanent—his existence a given as solid and sturdy as air to breathe. How could you help but to think of him that way, when he'd always been there? There, like the sun, or like the hand at the end of your wrist. You shudder, remembering Stan's empty stump. Everything changes.
The survival tank on your back rattles noisily with your unsteady intake of oxygen, and you want to laugh or cry again, hysterically—because you are only realizing now that you don't have air here. And it's undeniable as you watch your best friend slump down, lashes heavily drooping onto his cheeks, that he has always been so, so fragile. And you can't believe you'd never noticed. He's a limp rag doll now, body so weak that he can scarcely lift his head, and you wonder how you ever thought he was permanent—he looks so insubstantial that you feel he could blow away in a stray gust of wind. Luckily, the planet is still; the thin atmosphere prevents airflow except between your lungs.
And your lungs are raw, as Stan reaches for you hand. His grip is feather light, and you try to cling anyway.
Hours pass, or minutes. The time is slow, as the moons turn in unfamiliar rhythms in the alien sky. You watch them, and don't know how many days pass. You perhaps live an entire lifetime there, holding hands with your dying friend as three moons align, night after night.
At one point, he looks at you, the color gone from his lips, and he doesn't say anything, but he smiles. His lips barely move, but you can see that he means to assure you, and the lump settles in your throat. It's such a sad little smile, but you're grateful for it anyway. Stan's last smile is illuminated by the yellow gold of the falling sun, blazing and glorious and beautiful.
"It's okay, Kyle. I'm fine. Don't worry."
"I'm not, Stan."
Secretly, you know they don't send medical pods to this region. No one comes out to this region; so really, they don't send any pods at all. You are sort of glad, in the end, because you want these last moments, don't want them interrupted, not even by a rescue. You couldn't leave now, after all.
You hold his hand, and the moons sink below jagged hills on the horizon of the planet Marklar. You have minutes, hours or days, and you're too tired to speak, all out of words. Stan is too—you can tell, because he's ceased his shiver, growing still as he rests. The two of you just lay upon the rocks, tired and spent as the world turns.
For what seems like an entire other lifetime, you lay there with him, with Stan's hand twined firmly in yours. You're lost to the world, together—and the sun rises for the two of you alone, turning the desert sands to a golden sea that ripples on forever. You're a million light years from all you've ever known. This is the last place, you think, that you ever want to be.
Stan is falling asleep, his breathing slowing more and more. He is still, other than the slow rise and fall over his labored chest, and his grip is loosening as unconsciousness takes him.
Sweet dreams, Stan. I'll meet you there.
A shooting star lights up in the glittering night, falling through the sieve of the sky. You don't make a wish—what is there left to wish for? But you watch it instead, and reach out a hand to catch it in.
The falling star's light grows brighter, approaching you quickly, and you continue to cup your hand out trying to capture the raining starlight. But soon, there is white light everywhere, too much to ever catch in hand.
Voices sound, and perhaps your star has brought angels down with it. Perhaps they ushered this lonely star down from the sky. You think on this, as the blinding light stings your eyes.
"Kyle? Oh golly! Kyle! Guys! Fellers! Hurry up! It's Kyle!"
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!