December 15, 2021

A Chance to Breathe

by Daniel Ausema

“…the beaked natives ambled over to inspect the immigrants and welcome those allowed to stay.  Tirket calmed her breathing.  Don’t let her cough now.”

The passenger ship floated down to land, and Tirket wasn’t the only one to cough and wheeze.  Her carapace ached as it stretched with each heaving breath.  The weeks in the hold hadn’t been a kindness to any of them.  She pushed toward the nearest window, longing to see the city — the songbird city with its fabled machine-craft.  The doctors promised she might breathe easier there in the dry air.  In her mind it was a wide land of bulbous buildings and sprawling parks, bronze and green.  Of fresh air that welcomed the fluttering of her wings, air that tasted of flowers.

The windows, though, were rimed in salt too thick to see through clearly, and the sailors wouldn’t let them above until the airship was secure.

Tirket circled her antennae impatiently and focused on breathing.  A tang of oil set her to coughing again.

At last the doors opened.  Treated bamboo framed the towering buildings beside the airship, and the beaked natives ambled over to inspect the immigrants and welcome those allowed to stay.  Tirket calmed her breathing.  Don’t let her cough now.  Let her seem as healthy as anyone could be after such a journey over the ocean.  The engines of the airship hissed above her head.

While she fell in line with the other immigrants, a troop of humans ran past, each the height of one of her leg segments.  They chattered high-pitched instructions and unloaded the airship’s luggage.

“What are your skills, beetle?”

Tirket had been so absorbed in how she would convince the bird doctors of her health that she didn’t understand the question at first.  The words made sense, even coming from a beak.  She’d spent months before boarding the airship learning the native language.  But they didn’t form a complete thought.

“My skills?  Oh.”  Stifle that cough.  “I’m quick with my legs.”  She waved two pairs in front of the bird.  With their impractical wings, the birds always needed such help, though Tirket knew she wouldn’t survive factory work on her lungs.  She only needed to get through, then she could find a way to the frontier where they didn’t care what kind of lungs you had.  They can’t ask about my health.  Don’t let them.  The air here was dry, and that felt good, but smoke and oil trickled into her lungs.

“You fly too?”  The bird gestured with a wing at her back.

Tirket flexed, and they shuddered, but she shook her head.  “Only slow myself from falling.”

Without a question about her health, without any exam at all, the bird waved her on to one doorway that already had its own line of immigrants.  Beetles, as the natives called them.  Tirket had learned the word early in her studies, a derisive term, but she wouldn’t let it bother her.  As long as they let her in.  Through this door, past the bamboo wall… she pictured arrows on the ground to direct her beyond the city to clustered sacs of promised fresh air.  Lungs become geography.

“It will be a long wait.”  A crested bird paced beside the line, trailed by a troop of humans, their arms for the moment empty.  Tirket thought he might be some kind of woodpecker.  “They’ll be sending you to your assigned jobs, and you’ll likely be late for dinner.  If hunger takes you, though…”  The bird swept a wing back.

Where?  He seemed to indicate the airship behind them.  Or maybe the open flag where the ship rested for unloading and maintenance.  “Take any you want.  They are quite tasty.  I will be the one you pay, and we ask only that you not snatch one who is carrying gear at the moment.”

The humans.  The bird was offering the slaves for their snacks.  Tirket’s stomach clenched, and she looked away.  Hunger did grow, though, as the line crept forward.  The first time a passing bird grabbed a human, everyone in line cringed and turned away.  As evening came, several of the immigrants pooled some money and shared one amongst themselves.  She’d come with some money, knowing she couldn’t expect to earn much through work, but even as the others in line gave in to hunger, she wasn’t tempted.  Eyes closed, she focused on the dry air.

Her breaths wheezed by the time she came to the front.  She scarcely listened as the robin within explained where she’d work the next day, what she’d have to do with the massive steam engines, what would be expected.  She only listened to where she’d have to go.  The sky, when she emerged, was dark, the cooler air a relief to her lungs.  She enjoyed it only briefly before she was led into a brick-and-bamboo building, a dark shape that blocked most of the remaining light, and shown to her bed.

* * *

Tirket couldn’t work in the morning.  Her breath was strangled by oily smoke and exhaustion.  Some leeway seemed allowed to those just off the boat, because the others didn’t try to push her out when the steam whistles blew. She lay in bed and imagined snow on the ground, dry mountain air.

At mid-morning, at last, she pulled herself upright and clambered to the wall at the end of the room, leaning against bunks as she went.  A window, tall and narrow, gave a view of neighboring roofs below them.  The city stretched farther than she’d imagined.  As far as the hazy air obscured the horizon she could see buildings, not bulbous as she’d pictured, but showing the distinctive bamboo frames filled with red bricks.  Smoke or steam rose from nearly all the buildings.

Streets cut between them, in places drawn ruler-straight — probably where a fire had razed earlier factories — and in others tight-twisted and narrow.  Steam cars cruised along the streets, many open to the smoggy air.  Not once did Tirket see one of her insect-like people in those cars.  Only the native birds rode, unless perhaps the closed-roof cars hid beetle riders.  Tiny humans darted about the streets or rode in caged trailers behind the cars.  She looked at the sky for airships, but the window faced away from the airfield.

As she pulled herself back along the bunks, high-pitched laughter echoed off the walls, and two humans raced in, playing some sort of game.

“Oh.”  One pulled up short and stared at her.  The other stepped away from the first and echoed her… or him, Tirket couldn’t tell with humans.  Tirket waved a leg to tell them not to worry, but her lungs wouldn’t let her speak.

“We’re just… we’re here to clean.”

Tirket coughed, still trying to wave them on and move herself toward her bed.  It was too much at once, and the humans rushed over to support her.  In bed she closed her eyes and wheezed.  As her lungs found the air to calm her, she realized her hunger.  What had she eaten since leaving the airship?  Nothing.  Without thought, she said aloud, “I’m hungry.”

There was noise around her, but she couldn’t identify it.  It didn’t sound like cleaning.  When she opened her eyes, both humans knelt beside her bed, trembling, their heads bowed.  “You may choose,” one said in a pinched voice.

Tirket couldn’t even bring any of her legs up to push the idea away.  “No, I…”  The words had no force to them, no breath to give them sound.  “Food.  Bring me.  Whatever.  From the kitchen.”  Her eyes closed, and she heard human voices that never resolved into words.

She woke to a steam whistle.  A tray of food lay beside her bed, and she hurriedly ate it before the workers returned.  It was a tasteless mush but filled her stomach pleasantly.  She fell back asleep before the others came in.

* * *

The next morning brought her some questioning looks, but still no one forced her from the room or asked after her health.  The same humans came early in the morning with another tray of food.  “What are your names?”  Their eyes widened, and they backed away without answering.  If they cleaned the room again, it must have been while she slept.

They returned in the afternoon and stood beside her bed, shifting their feet.

“I’m Rae,” one said.  Or Ray, maybe.  “And I’m Tay.”  Both had long hair and features that looked the same to her.  One — Rae, she thought — had darker skin than the other.

“Thank you, both.”  With one leg she pointed at where the tray had been —gone now, she noticed.  Her lungs labored on the city air.  “Might you know of anywhere I could sleep with an open window?”

Tay cocked his (her?) head.  “Why?”

Tirket coughed.  “The cool, night air.  It’s… I can breathe it better.”

Rae shook her (his?) head.  “No windows.”

“Maybe the roof, though.”

“Maybe,” the other one echoed.

They left without saying anything else, and Tirket fell asleep.  She woke in the night to movement.  The sounds of sleepers filled the room, but that hadn’t woken her.  She’d been moved.  She lay in a smaller bed, one that had no upper bunk.  Some fifteen or so humans surrounded her, carrying the bed out of the room.  She propped herself up, but Tay or Rae leaned in and signaled for silence.  She lay her head down and let them carry her up steps and onto the flat roof.  They buried her in a mound of blankets, and she breathed the cool air until she slept.

* * *

During the days that followed, Tirket came down to the main dormitory.  The other workers would already be gone and the sun beginning to heat the city air.  She slept, despite the hours she’d slept in the night on the roof, and dreamed of how she might escape the city.  Tay and Rae brought her food and even talked with her about their work, the building, the songbird natives.  After several days she broached the subject of leaving the city.

“I can’t catch my breath here.  The doctors in the old country prescribed clean air and promised it to me here.”

“Beyond the city?”  The idea confounded them.  Some of the humans there had traveled within the city, they explained, but Rae and Tay had been born in that building and always lived there, working, afraid of hungry birds and beetles.  They agreed to find out what they could.

“You have money?” they asked her the next day.  “You can ride in a cab, if you can pay.”

“I have some.”  More than most immigrants to be honest.  Most came because they had little to begin with, desperate for work and the chance to make their own fortune.  She’d come not wealthy but comfortable, with her family’s blessing.  “Can you summon the cab for me?”

They supported her down to the street that afternoon.  The cabbie stepped from his car and stared at them, humans and a beetle, snacks and dumb labor.  She saw the thought in his eyes.

“I want you to take me to the edge of the city.”

“Can’t, miss.”  The cabbie was already returning to his seat.  “This is a city cab, for birds only.  You’ll have to find a bus or walk.”  The last words were deadened by the shut door, and the cab pulled away.

“A bus?”  Tirket looked at the milling group of humans.  How terrible to be outside like this where any passing person might choose them for food.  She led them inside and stopped at the base of the stairs.  Cracked tiles threw off her balance, and the stuffy air forced her to sit, to breathe as deeply as she could.

One human squeaked a reply.  “No buses.  Not this time of year.  They mainly run in the winter.”

They trickled away until only Rae and Tay were left.  “I can’t walk, can I?  It’s too far.”

Damn her lungs.  Damn the consumption that made them weak!  She let them walk on each side of her, up the narrow steps straight to the roof.  The day air was no easier on her lungs than inside, and the light made it harder to sleep, but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered.  Might as well languish in the bedclothes, become a symbol, a woman for someone to love selflessly — or at least tell himself that, because her imminent death meant his love would never be tested.  Such was the fate of those with her illness back home.

Her tossing dreams showed her the buildings of the city, but transformed.  Bamboo formed the walls, but not dried and reinforced.  Entire buildings waved in a smoky wind, as bamboo stalks will in the wild.  But there was nothing of the wild in the image, despite that resemblance.  Everything seemed constructed, even the glaring sunshine where it broke through the smog.

Great engines swallowed their workers.  Brass craftsmen — all of them native birds — marched in step to showcase their wares.  Shifts of factory workers shuffled in unison to the beat of a deep whistle.  And there she was, above the throngs, encased in her bed on top of a swaying building.  She saw herself from outside, face and blankets alike turned to an icy slate.  A line of beetles climbed ever toward her, intent on worshiping her still form, but each time one reached the roof, human hands dragged him up and tossed him down the other side.

Tirket sat up, awake beneath cold stars.  The dream images faded slowly as her lungs gulped air.  She wouldn’t let it happen.  Despair was not in her, not for one who had crossed the seas and skies in a cramped airship for this chance.  Somewhere open land waited for her, land even she could work, because the air would be clean and dry.  Somewhere a clearing in a high valley longed for a mud cabin to be built by her six legs.

If she had to crawl building by building, she would.  Night by night, wrapped in blankets, her days she could spend wherever the night left her, tucked within an unlocked doorway, huddled on the street, maybe even on neighboring roofs, if she could find the way and the strength to climb.  It might take a month, but she wouldn’t stay to become a symbol of empty fantasies.

The street was empty when she reached it, but the trip down had taken longer than she’d hoped.  Her lungs couldn’t find the air, and she had to rest.  At this rate it would take a month just to cross a block, a lifetime to reach the wilderness.  A healthy lifetime, that is.  If she had to stay in the city, Tirket’s lifetime would be much shorter.

Dawn neared, and the morning’s first cars whistled their ignition.  Air whistled in and out of her lungs too, and she imagined them as steam engines, decrepit, failing.  Clogged with the film left from inferior coal.  She stumbled across the street, unable to look anywhere but straight ahead.  Someone yelled at her, but why she didn’t know.

Along the building opposite, she kept her hand on the wall, pulling herself as well as she could.  Smog gathered in her lungs, and the air warmed up.  She collapsed in a recessed side door of the building.  She didn’t think her breathing would let her sleep, but she did, curled against the unused door.  Once a bird woke her, asking her business, but the look in her insect eyes must have been all the answer he needed.

When night came she struggled to her feet.  The buildings swayed as they had in her dream, though she knew it was only her dizziness.  She tried to focus ahead, to pick one spot and aim for it, but her head kept pulling down.  Her goal became simply one more step, that next crack in the pavement, that bit of debris, the base of a street-lamp.

Tirket couldn’t guess how much of the night had passed —she hadn’t gone far, however much it was — when someone came up beside her.  Rae, she thought, and Tay on the other side.  Then a dozen more human hands grabbed her, eased her back onto a pile of blankets.

“What…”  Was this some kind of betrayal with the humans bringing her back to their bird masters?

The blankets moved, a cot that the humans carried underneath her.  Not to bring her back, but continuing along the street.

“Why…”  She looked to either side at Rae and Tay and the other interchangeable humans carrying her.  “There must be thousands of us every year.  Beetles,” she gave the word all the derision that the birds used, “overrunning your city, preying on your people.”

Tay looked away from her as if the answer was embarrassing.

Rae answered though, dark face crinkling in an expression Tirket couldn’t interpret.  “Maybe it’s because you didn’t.  Didn’t prey on us, I mean.  And others saw that you didn’t, saw you turn away in disgust throughout that first day.  We asked around about you, and those people at the airstrip remembered.”

Maybe.  Tirkit doubted that explained it all though.  She imagined an underground movement among the humans, resistance groups that Rae and Tay stumbled on as they made their inquiries about getting her out of the city.  She’d be a symbol for them.  An image of overcoming the songbird city, of fighting even when it became difficult to continue.  But much better to be a symbol for resistance than a symbol for empty romantic gestures.

The cot jolted and jerked as they walked, and Tirket had no answer.  Engines still sounded, even in the night, and the streets were not fully empty.  Her human carriers huddled against the bed but walked as confidently as they dared — her antennae tensed with their mingled fear and determination — and they made good time.

Tirket phased in and out of wakefulness, and it could have been dreams or simply waking imagination, but she saw how they must look from above.  The bed floating along dark streets.  Her own insect head propped on a pillow, the rest of her swallowed by heavy blankets —white and blue — that also hid most signs of the little humans carrying her.  Only a careful observer would note their heads and pale clothing.  They moved as fast as was reasonable, but the city dwarfed their strides, so the bed did not race but must seem instead something from a dream itself.

What stories might an insomniac tell in the morning of her night-time visions?  A beetle goddess leaving the city?  A lonely death parade for the nameless, dying workers?  No one would believe it.

They would not reach the edge of the city that night, but that didn’t bother Tirket.  The humans would find a place for her bed and sleep beneath it through the day, safe from hungry passersby and angry owners come to retrieve them.  They would make it out of the city some night, and then beyond.  When the air grew clear enough, she would walk, and with Tay and Rae and whichever of the rest wished, she could establish her homestead, them free of predators and her free to breathe air clean and dry.

For the moment, she lay back and breathed as well as she could, and the city of the songbirds floated by.


* * *

About the Author

Daniel Ausema’s fiction and poetry have appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Diabolical Plots. His high fantasy trilogy The Arcist Chronicles is published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series, set in a world of beetle-drawn carriages and chained singers. He lives with his family in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.


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