“If you clench your teeth any tighter, they’re going to shatter.”
Dory lifted her eyes from the computer screen to see her husband seated across from her, buttering his toast.
“Sorry, I didn’t even hear you come in,” she said.
“Why are you doing that on the computer and not on the Breathe Free?”
“Because I hate wearing that thing in the house.”
“But it would be so much easier. What are you working on so early, anyway?”
“The Conscientious Objector is bugging me about my EcoWatch column.”
“Still no idea what to write about?”
“Morning,” came a muffled voice.
Into the kitchen walked a tall, lanky teenager in boxer shorts, a t-shirt and a silver helmet. He plodded over to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk. Dory frowned.
“Simon, take that thing off. You know I hate it when you wear it down here first thing in the morning. This is practically the only time we get to see your face!”
“Got to check my email for school.” He took two cereal bars out of the cabinet and started to peel a banana.
“You can do it on the computer, can’t you? Besides, you have to eat breakfast too, and you can’t do it with that thing on.”
“Watch me,” he said as he put the cereal bars, banana and milk into the blender.
“You aren’t,” said Dory.
“Yep,” came the muffled voice, followed by a jarring whirr. In a few seconds, Simon had the blender carafe in his hand and was drinking his breakfast through a straw shoved up through the bottom of the helmet. Dory slammed her laptop shut and pushed out of her chair.
“Come on Simon,” Steve chimed in. “That really is enough.”
“I need some fresh air,” Dory said as she stormed past Simon.
“Fresh air? What’s that?” Simon joked as she passed.
Dory walked down the windy street, listening to the sound of her own breath in her ears. She had kept the Breathe Free’s screen off so that she could think, but being enclosed in that helmet made her feel lonely. She turned on the screen.
“Andy Paternoster,” she said. The first track of Andy Paternoster’s newest album began to play. The gentle guitar intro lulled her. A sudden unexpected twinge of sadness flickered in her mind as she listened. Was she really incapable of taking a walk in silence? How could she yell at Simon for being so dependent on the Breathe Free when she couldn’t make it 20 steps without turning on its interactive screen?
It didn’t help that the Breathe Free was so necessary. She couldn’t leave it at home – no one left their houses without wearing one in the city. The pollution was too dense. If a person were to go outside without a mask they’d end up in the hospital, coughing their lungs up. Even the homeless wore masks, though theirs weren’t very protective – just a cover made of thick paper – and those poor people didn’t last very long outdoors. The ones without sunglasses or eye covers of some kind often had eye infections and edema due to all the irritants in the air.
She remembered the last time she had gone outside without a mask. It was a few months after she had met Steve. She had driven to meet him for dinner and had only been able to find parking several blocks away from the restaurant. Even after that short walk, she had been coughing all through dinner. The next day she went out and bought a cheap mask, and shortly after that Steve bought her one of the first models of the Breathe Free. Most models these days had internet screens, voice activated commands, and filters that were good for two months, but her first Breathe Free had connected to her cell phone, and the filter had to be changed every few days. How quickly technology changed.
She looked around her. People were walking here and there, all wearing Breathe Free masks. With some she couldn’t tell who was male and who was female. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen anyone’s face in the street. She couldn’t remember what it felt like to have the wind blowing in her face. The thought made her sad.
Impulsively, she took a deep breath and yanked the Breathe Free off of her head. The first thing she felt was the sting of pollution in her eyes. She squinted, and then shut her eyes tightly as they began to water. Her skin felt cooler, and she felt the wind on her cheeks and in her hair. For a moment it was freeing, but she was going to need to breathe soon and she wasn’t keen to do it without the helmet. She opened her eyes briefly once more and saw some of the helmeted faces turned toward her – one or two had even stopped walking to stare. She wiped her eyes and put the Breathe Free back on. She took a deep breath.
She turned and started back home. On the way she composed an email to the editor of the Conscientious Objector with the title, “Fresh air? What’s that?”
As they stepped off the plane, Dory felt a thrill of excitement. She couldn’t wait to get their bags to the room and call to confirm for the tour tomorrow. Steve was all smiles, too.
“I’ve never been to Antarctica before.” He gave Dory a quick hug. “This was a great idea, babe. You are really going to capture the public’s imagination with this article.”
If Simon was excited, there was no way to tell. They heard him speaking in muffled tones inside his Breathe Free, commanding a game character to do something or other.
They got their things and started walking to the hotel in the airport. It was the only hotel in town, because New Svalbard liked to make things easy to monitor. The town existed mostly for science and had a lot of expensive projects in the works, so keeping tourists and outsiders corralled was a simple safety precaution. Coming to Antarctica felt a little like visiting an old-timey dictatorship – if you wanted to visit, you could only go where they said you could go, and only with a guide. You could ask nosey questions, but good luck getting a straight answer.
Even with the restrictions, though, New Svalbard was considered a great place to visit. The scientists had opened it up to tourists to generate money for research and maintenance after breaking ground for the world’s second seed bank – the first being in Svalbard, Norway. With Norway warming up, the United Coalition for Preservation Science had put out a worldwide call for funding to create a New Svalbard in Antarctica.
They had since completed the project and were now working hard in the Splicing Lab, the first and finest crowd-sourced GMO lab in the world. As a side project, the Splicing Lab ran Fresh Air Tours, a company that took visitors out into the wilds of Antarctica to feel what it was like to breathe outside without a mask. Many of the tourists came from places where only the moon shone at night, sometimes just barely. There were very few places left where one could see stars. That feature alone kept the tourists coming out to brave the cold.
As soon as they got to their room, Dory threw down her things, washed her face and called the tour operator to announce their arrival. They chatted for a moment and when she hung up the phone, Dory’s eyes were shining.
“They said not to eat dinner, that they’re going to have a cookout for us outside. Can you believe it? I haven’t eaten outside since I was a little girl.”
“You’re kidding!” Steve said, shocked. “I didn’t know you could still do that.”
“Gross,” said Simon, lying down on the bed with his shoes still on.
The half-hour drive went quickly. Caroline gave a brief history of New Svalbard and the Antarctic Cooperative of Scientists as Dory gazed outside.
“I’ve never seen so much nothing,” Steve whispered.
Simon had his head turned to the window, still wearing the helmet. It was hard to tell if he was looking outside or napping, but Dory hoped it was the former.
The bus stopped at a modest little picnic area. As Dory stepped off the bus, the cold air hit her face. It was a delicious feeling. Her face was free, free to be cold, free to be outside. She took a deep breath and smiled like a fool. Steve ran off the bus like an elementary school student on a field trip, taking a deep breath and then bellowing like a wild man. Another man from the bus followed his lead. Dory laughed. She knew what he felt. The last time they had done this they were children. All of them were recapturing something.
Simon stepped off the bus silently.
“Simon, take off the Breathe Free!” Steve yelled happily.
“No way,” he said.
“Come on!” Dory said, irritated. “We came all the way out here so you could see what it’s like to be outside without a helmet!”
The helmeted teenager folded his arms and walked to the far end of the picnic area.
“Oops.” Steve’s mouth jerked to the side.
“Attention, everyone!” called Caroline. “While we’re getting the grill warmed up, let me tell you a little about what we’re going to eat today. The Splicing Lab is famous for being a leader in genetic modification of crop foods, but did you know that we also have a section devoted completely to growing meat products? Today we’ll be serving beef that we’ve grown in the lab ourselves…”
“Psst, look.” Steve nudged Dory and pointed toward Simon. His helmet was under his arm and his hair was blowing gently to the side. He was facing the setting sun, and his figure against the magnificent landscape at that moment made Dory’s eyes tear up.
“This is the first time he’s ever really breathed free,” Dory whispered.
Slowly and quietly, they walked up to Simon as the last of the sunlight was fading. Dory looked at her son’s tired, sickly-looking face as he quickly wiped his cheeks.
“My face is cold,” he said. “Like, really cold.”
“When I was your age, this is what it felt like to go out in winter,” Dory said. “You wore a hat and a scarf and your face was always cold. Sometimes your eyelashes and nose hairs would freeze… but nothing made you feel more alive than a big, full breath of winter air. Try it. It might shock you, but there’s nothing like it.”
Simon took a deep breath and coughed slightly.
“It doesn’t smell like anything,” Simon said. “I mean, it does, but not like anything I’ve ever smelled.”
“This is what air is supposed to smell like,” Steve said. “It wasn’t this clean when I was young, but it was similar.”
“How did people do this every day? My head is freezing.” he shivered.
They stood in silence a little longer, watching the night sky appear.
“Wow,” Simon said. “Look at all the stars.”