My first underwater breath nearly killed me.
That doesn’t stop me from stepping into the cramped confines of the conversion chamber anyway. My stomach tightens as I key in my access code, my fingers moving over the black, waterproof panel with ease. The memory of that failed transition is a hot vapor at the back of my throat, but that’s all it is. An echo. A reminder. Right now, I’m more likely to get caught sneaking out.
I shake out my fists and roll the stiffness from my shoulders. Clamps snick closed over my flippers, tubes set into the bottom of the chamber open with a pressurized pop, and water crashes in around my feet. After nearly three years, these preparations, at least, have become automatic.
I close my eyes and drag in a measured breath, hold it, slowly let it out. I do it again and again while the water licks up my calves, my thighs, my hips. Thanks to the skin-like suit covering nearly every inch of my body, the moisture doesn’t register. Water rolls up my stomach, pressing in from all sides. As the weight settles over my chest, I gasp, my eyes popping open. Long combs in my suit along either side of my ribcage spread wide my gill openings, through which lukewarm water seeps into my body.
Red illuminated digits reveal I have ten seconds, and I fight not to hit the emergency override button well within reach. The human body is designed to breathe on its own. Nine. Telling my body to stop doing what it’s designed to do, forcing my breathing to slow though my heart thunders in my chest, is like trying to wrangle an alligator. Eight. A mask covers my mouth and nose, wrapping from ear to ear, and I trigger the one-way valve. With a hiss, it seals tight to my face. Seven. Water sloshes over my chin, and my body instantly rebels, my lungs straining for air, but the mask doesn’t give. Six.
My eyes press shut against the water; another reflex I can’t seem to kick, but the darkness helps me focus. I blow the remaining oxygen from my lungs, force it out the one-way valve beneath my ear. A bolt of fire rips through my chest. It’s that instinct—to breathe when there is no air—that every aquine struggles to break. Most end up passing out if their gills don’t open. Not me. The day I took my first, fully-submerged breath, I forgot to check the seal on my mask, so when instinct demanded oxygen, my lungs took on water instead. It’s a mistake I will never make again.
My mind, unable to draw oxygen through my lungs, instead locks on to the muscles needed to drag water through the complex labyrinth resting around and beneath the constrained organs. It’s a slow, laborious feeling, like trying to breathe through a filter, but the fire in my chest fades to a dull ache. Even my heart patters out a steady rhythm.
I blink a few times over the ridge of my mask. My second lids stay firmly in place, creating transparent shields over my eyeballs. Two. The control panel flashes a Bay Door Release warning as it counts down to one, and then, the reinforced door slides up with a dull whoosh, startling a school of fish beyond. Their pale bellies flash silvery green in the muted moonlight breaking over our shallow lake. The clamps on my flippers click open, and I kick free of the conversion chamber.
A heavy silence presses in on me, and for a moment, the only sensation is the drag of water—cooler now that I’m not in the temperature-controlled chamber—as it works its way through the labyrinth. I glance around. Visibility isn’t great down here at night, but thanks to my second lids, my vision is better than a landie’s in these murky depths. The moon is a pale, blurry beacon overhead, but where light meets the surface, it shivers and bends as if tickled by the soft swell and play of water. Even beneath this delicate dance, the stony lakebed below fades to an all-consuming blackness. Despite not being able to see farther than a dozen feet in any direction, I know the underbelly of Lake Okeechobee like the back of my hand, so I push for shore—or well, the manmade island housing the University for Aquine Development at the center of the lake.
The moment the water breaks for me on the surface, I tug off my mask and fill my lungs to capacity. Water drains from my gill slits as I clamber up the pebble-strewn beach. I pause only long enough to knock each heel against the opposite shin to retract the flippers before setting off again. Moonlight outlines a shadowy silhouette waiting quietly near the docks, and though I know it must be Josh, everything appears muted and foggy behind my second lids. With a blink, they slide back as he cocks his dark head to offer a smile. Leaning against his lowflyer, he languidly drapes an arm over the handlebars, a movement that highlights the strength in his bare shoulders.
“Hey, Ari. I was hoping you’d make it.” His words are smooth, effortless. It’s the way he talks to everyone, but the gleam in his eyes tells me he’s genuinely happy to see me.
“Yeah, me too.” I’ve missed nonchalance by twenty leagues, but I can’t help it. Unlike Josh, I haven’t been authorized to live alone, and sneaking out of my family pod isn’t easy, especially with my dad’s ever-tightening curfew. If there’s anything I like more than hanging out with Josh, it’s going to the bay; and tonight, there’s a beach party.