Authors: Hafsah Laziaf
UNBREATHABLE. Copyright © 2013 by Hafsah Laziaf
Cover and Interior Design by Hafsah Laziaf
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
First paperback edition: October 2013
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical
events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
ISBN-13: 978-0-9900138-1-5 (paperback)
ISBN-13: 978-0-9900138-0-8 (ebook)
The last time I stood here on this hill, Father was alive, Earth was thought to be destroyed, and I was human.
I ignore the pang in my chest, because tonight isn’t for grieving. Tonight is for redemption, for proving to the hopeless human race that Earth is real. Because until three nights ago, Earth was nothing more than a beautiful impossible dream.
With a deep breath, I take off down the hill. Every pounding step sends a billow of sand puffing into the wheezing, dry wind. The planet Jutaire is nothing more than a sea of red, rolling for as far as the eye can see, dotted with boulders and buildings raised to life by man and Jute. If anyone were to glance at the hill now, they would see me, a dark smudge against leagues of red beneath the silky moonlight.
But everyone is tucked in bed, breathing the oxygen inside their sealed homes. They live because there is nothing else for them to do. For them, this night is another and tomorrow will bring a day like any other. That’s the despicable way I was for seventeen years. Existing without living.
It was only after losing everything I had—after death stole my father—that I realized there’s a purpose to my life.
I have to finish what he started.
I adjust the mask suffocating my skin. Manufactured oxygen tries to soothe the fear drumming in my bloodstream. The clear mask is only half a sphere, much like the masks Father said they wore in hospitals back on Earth, only these are sleeker, fitting tight around our noses and mouths.
Because it only takes one breath of Jutaire’s toxic air for a human to die in mere heartbeats.
As I near the Chamber, where the metal and glass are tucked away, the worry gnawing at my insides increases. I'm fully aware of the many ways this could go wrong, and that every way will end the same.
With me hanging limp from a noose.
I clench my jaw and stare ahead. Nothing can stop me, not even the whisper of death.
The Chamber is protected by sweeping lights and a high metal fence. The walls are of faded, deep blue metal, with a barely visible ten-pointed white star emblazoned in its center. I’ve seen the star countless times from a distance, but never up close. The building is unsuspecting on the outside—like pretty much all of Jutaire—but it houses the most precious elements on our planet.
My palms are slick with sweat when I crouch behind a boulder as a scope of white light sweeps past, illuminating the brittle ground. I count the heartbeats beneath my ragged breath before it swings back.
Forty. I have forty beats to cross roughly five feet and scale the six-foot fence.
, I remind myself, as worry and fear threatens to overwhelm me.
The light passes. I dash out from behind the boulder and thread my sweaty fingers in the fence, struggling to find footing and climb. I move quietly, though the fence is keen on exposing my existence. I listen to the
thud, thud, thud
of my heart, counting away the time before I am caught.
One. Five. Eleven. Fifteen. Twenty-three. Thirty-five. I drop to the other side with a muted thud. A fine layer of dust coats my mask and stings my eyes.
I scramble to my feet and press against the smooth wall, flinching at the chill of my sweat-soaked shirt.
The positions of the lights and the locations of all three entrances have been ingrained in my mind, flashing behind my eyelids with every blink. It’s supposed to be simple, from the plans I had scribbled on scraps of old paper. Yet the voice of my conscience stokes my fear without fail.
This is how Father died. He stole from the Chamber.
But did he die for what he stole, or for what he saw?
I ignore the nagging question and smooth down the loose strands from my braid with one hand, digging into my pocket with the other. I won’t let myself dwell on the thought of Father murdered because he saw Earth. Despite all the hangings the Chancellors order, they wouldn’t hang him for such an innocent discovery that could save us all.
I pass two more lights as I slide along the wall. And finally, finally, I make it to the back of the building. Relief flickers through me as I rush to the metal door and slip the stolen keycard into the slot.
“Hurry,” I whisper, wiping my sweaty palms across my pants. It’s almost impossible to see anything beyond the bright beams. Anyone can see me and I won’t see them. Before the dangerous thought can fully register, a tiny green light flashes and the door clicks open.
All this worrying and planning, and it’s over within moments. I run my tongue along my salty lips as I step inside, allowing myself the slightest bit of triumph.
But I have to be in and out in heartbeats, for it won’t be long before my break-in alerts them in the Tower, even if I’m careful enough not to trigger the inside alarms.
I have to grab the metal, grab the glass—Jutaire’s most valuable elements. I need them to make a scope, to show the other humans there is something to hope for, something to fight for.
And I will get them.
But the moment I exhale, it hits me:
something is wrong
. The walls around me seem to be holding their breath in anticipation. The air is tight, though the room is large. My breath catches.
Something is wrong.
Panic makes. My chest. Tight.
I freeze, barely noticing the flicker of movement to my right as a screeching alarm crashes the silence. Red lights pulse in the darkness. I press myself against the door in a vain attempt to rewind time.
I force air through my lips.
Then I see him: a man—no, a boy. Every pulse brings him closer, clearer. Long. Lithe. His hair is a jagged mess of darkness atop his head. From his simple clothes, as dark as his hair, I can tell he isn’t a soldier, one of the men who protect us from the Jute and enforce the Chancellors’ orders. But he has to be the one who set off the alarm, because I’ve been so careful.
Panic closes off the oxygen to my lungs and presses into my vision. I felt this same way three days ago, when the pale-eyed soldier grabbed the scope from Father’s hands and threw it to the floor with quiet fury. When all I could do was stand and watch, horrified, meek, weak. Nothing more than a shadow in a dark house.
The door is behind me. All it takes is one twist of the handle and I could disappear again. And isn’t that what I’m best at—disappearing? Running?
But when I think of Father, my resolve hardens again. I can't leave. I can’t let Father’s death go in vain. He spent his life searching for Earth,
because of it.
I take a step forward and take in the Chamber. It stretches wide and long, empty, aside from two piles, glass beside metal, as high as the ceiling—nearly triple my height.
I clutch my pouch close to my chest and take another step forward, my breathing heavy as another thought registers: the metal and glass aren’t scarce at all. They’re abundant, hidden. Shrouded by lies in four metal walls where no one will see and no one will question.
The Chancellors, the soldiers—they’re all liars. Even
, who broke in here days ago, never said a word to me.
The alarm cuts off. The lights stop pulsing, illuminating everything in a bloody hue. My time is running out. I step toward the metal first, reaching for a flat sheet amidst the mess of scraps and nails.
I gasp. I’m falling.
Someone crashes into me, knocking the air from my lungs and the thoughts from my mind. The ground rushes up and the impact of cool concrete racks my body. I hear an
that reminds me of the boy.
I sit up before struggling to my feet. He stands, too, a sharp inhale shattering the heavy silence. I stiffen.
My mask is on the floor.
Time seems to stop when I realize what this means. I hold my breath for barely a beat before that overwhelming desire forces me to inhale the deadly air.
Sweet, musty, delectable. The toxic air of Jutaire slithers through my nostrils and fills my lungs in layers and layers of richness. Shivers tremor up and down the length of my body. A relieved sigh slips from my lips. One breath is all it takes, and I can’t stop. I can’t think. I can’t do anything but breathe.
The air of Jutaire is as dangerous for me as it is for any human. It kills them. It makes me drunk with its sweetness.
This is what I discovered three days ago that Father never told me for seventeen years of my life that no one else should know.
I can’t be human.
“Who are you?” An unforgiving silence follows the words. My breath catches.
The boy takes a tentative step toward me—I have to get out of here—then another.
Thud, thud, thud
goes my heart. He stops. I look up, and my heart skips a beat. His eyes shimmer a brilliant blue: the color of the ocean as Father described it to me, countless times on countless nights. Surprise flits across them when he looks closer— and something else. Recognition? His face is chiseled, skin a light bronze. His hair is deep, dark ebony.
Every color on him is profound. Like Earth.
“What are you doing here?” His voice is soft and demanding. I open my mouth, but words don’t come. Now that the thrill of the air has subsided, all I can think of is my mask on the floor.