A yawn forced its way out of Lobert’s mouth as he stretched his arms, filling up his lungs with recycled air. He had dimmed the lights in the laboratory, the roof panels emitting a weak glow. Normally the piercing lights gave him a headache, but the gloom was just making him sleepy. In the near darkness the glass and metal of assorted scientific equipment glimmered on the racks around the walls, reflecting the calm blue light that emanated from his workstation. In cages sedated animals slept, unaware of Lobert and his dust monkey, who walked up and down the cages, peering in at the captives with curiosity. It was late evening on Taurus Delta, and the laboratory was deserted apart from Lobert. His antisocial tendencies led him use the lab in his free time, so as to avoid human contact. His experiment was frustrating him; nothing seemed to be working the way it should. He pushed the tubes and flasks into the auto cleaner, wiping his tech-slate clear of scrawled calculations and messy notes. A noise broke the silence, making him jump. He turned to see a figure silhouetted in the harsh light of the corridor. The dust monkey crept into a gap between the cages watching the visitor.
“ Who’s there?” He asked the figure. The person walked into the room, the lab door sliding closed, returning the room to its darkened state.
“It’s me, Xan.” As his eyes adjusted, Lobert recognised the man’s Asian face and sleek dark hair. Xan perched on the bench near Lobert’s. “Working late again?” Lobert nodded. Xan Attol was the only person on the base that ever talked to him like he was a human. However, Xan wasn’t his friend. He treated Lobert like a child that needed help, which made him feel even more pathetic than the insults Findus and the others heaped upon him. He tried to look busy, fiddling with the equipment on the bench. “Anyway”, Xan continued, “I wanted to show you this.” He reached into his pocket and produced a memory film, which he handed to Lobert, who pressed the slip of material onto the tech-slate. Files and information flashed up on the screen. Lobert studied the symbols with mild interest.
“What is it?”
“It’s a code I came up with today, it should recalibrate our equipment by 0.00127 degrees of efficiency in relation to the atmospheric differential of Taurus Delta.” Xan smiled proudly.
“Why are you showing me? You should take this to Skiller.”
“Well I was going to but, well, I know you’ve hit a dead end and I thought you might like to use it a bit before I upload it on the central computer.” Lobert turned away so Xan wouldn’t see his annoyance. He hated being pitied.
“Yeah it will probably help my work’, he muttered.
“Well, you keep hold of that film, I’ll hand the code in formally in a couple of weeks. Glad I could give you a hand.” He left Lobert alone in the laboratory.
The dust monkey, sensing he could come out, trotted across the floor and jump up onto the work surface, sitting opposite Lobert. The scientist scowled at the screen. As much as it angered him, he needed any help he could get.
The days passed a little more easily now that Lobert had the dust monkey to keep his company, which he had named Philip. He had managed to persuade the computer that he needed the monkey for his work, but she wasn’t one hundred per cent satisfied, and let him know this at regular intervals. All specimens from the planet’s surface were to be kept in quarantine in the laboratories by the rules of the UEAD, so Philip had to be carefully kept a secret. Stein added Xan’s code to his work, but it didn’t seem to do much good. His results were more detailed than before, but he still hadn’t made much progress. Everything carried on as normal, with Philip living off scraps of food Lobert smuggled out of the dining hall. Everything was normal, that is, until the day of the accident.
Lobert was walking out in the dome, checking his plants. It had been almost a week since Xan gave him his breakthrough code and he still had nothing to show for it. Philip sat on a rock, watching him in the milky sunlight, his eight eyes blinking in a hypnotic fashion. Lobert turned to check his creepers and as he did, he tripped on a boulder. As he hit the ground two things happened. Firstly, the helmet of his bubble suit cracked and split in half, the fragility of the headpiece caused by a Mister Herbert Edgar, the engineer at Cyron Astro-Industries responsible for safety testing the helmet. Mister Edgar had gone on his tea break three minutes too early on the day the helmet was being tested, thus resulting in the hairline fracture in the glass going unnoticed until the very moment it struck the ground. The second thing to happen was that Lobert took a deep choking breath of the planet’s air as a rock directly beneath his chest knocked the wind out of him.
This is it, thought Lobert, awaiting the oncoming implosion of his skull, caused by the toxic gases and lack of oxygen. Lobert stein, your time is up, he concluded.
But his seemingly inevitable death did not come. He breathed out. And then in again. Realisation slowly leaked into his mind, a glass slowly filling. Somehow, he had done it. He was breathing the planet’s air.