Nitrogen Storms

A blast of air forced a plastic coating against every surface of my body, making me feel like I was being shrink-wrapped on fast forward. The membrane turned to a gel on contact and it took my lungs a moment longer to remember their own function. I’d been through the operation once a week for almost eight months, and though I knew intellectually what to expect next, I couldn’t convince the rest of my skin that this was the new normal. Necessary, even.
Nitrogen storms had ravaged the earth for about two years now, sweeping across the surface of the planet and destroying every bit of unprotected technology in its wake. Human life also seemed to be a target, if the body wanted to breathe in the windy electrical storms. Scientists – many of whom lived in the same underground facility I did – had spent much of the time since the phenomenon playing salvage and catch up. Underground computer networking was back up and running, allowing information to be shared again, which eventually led to the development of the membrane suit I was wearing now.
Hardware was a little more difficult to share. The rampant storms were tricky to detect, and would pop up and disappear at a moment’s notice. Today’s mission should change all that, though. A neighboring facility had developed a way to access the satellites; they had been untouched by the storms, but the equipment that communicated with them had not been spared. I had volunteered for the mission to the surface the moment I heard my friend would be the one delivering the equipment.
Rean worked at our sister facility to the west. Even through the storms, we had managed to keep up communication since we parted ways after school. She was great – witty and brilliant and sharp – and the exact model operative needed for surface missions.
I slid my protected phone into my pocket as I finished getting dressed. I had saved a handful of my favorite meme discoveries for her. Even though she had likely seen most, if not all, I still enjoyed putting her in the awkward spot between I’ve-already-seen-this-and-it-wasn’t-funny-then and How-did-I-miss-this-it’s-great whenever possible.
Speaking through the membrane was dangerous – any movement beyond gentle might tear it – so I gave the man behind the air lock a thumbs up instead. My floor separated from his, sending me up the two floors and into the atmosphere. The nitrogen storm that swarmed around me couldn’t touch me yet, but my suit did expire pretty quickly. I hit the ten-minute timer on my watch as I ascended. The countdown had begun.
The instant I got above the surface, my membrane turned from the semi-permeable gel to a waxy-yet-moisturizing substance, like chapstick. Winds swirled around me, hastening the transition and telling me that the strong eye of the storm was still approaching.
The same could be said for Rean’s car. Dust swirled in the wind, visible even from this distance. I recognized the red vehicle a moment later. It was an older model, but anything without an advanced central computer was highly prized since the storms started. It was definitely hers. I grinned and pulled my phone back out of my pocket, swiping through the memes until I found a particularly terrible pun.
My membrane-suit filtered the nitrogen as well as the dust she kicked up as she slid to a stop. I hurried forward as quickly as I could, slipping my phone through the cracked driver’s side window before noticing the look on her face.
She was terrified.
There was no satiny sheen across her skin. Why wasn’t she wearing her membrane? Alarmed, I opened the door, ready to rush her inside, but I could already see the effects of the storm literally start to suffocate her. Her skin was puckering, like a swimmer’s, but leathery and dry. I wanted to demand she hold her breath, but she knew the safety precautions as well as I did. My phone slid to the ground as I opened the door, but I let it fall. Rean was drying before my eyes, facial skin pulling like a mummy as she shoved the object of the mission into my hands. No! I put it in my bag without taking my eyes off of her. It wasn’t important right now!
I stood as smoothly as I could, unable to grip her arm to help her out of the car. She needed to get inside, and immediately.
She looked ready to follow me out, braving the harsher wind for the chance at safety. Then her muscles seized. I had heard a very vivid description of the effects of nitrogen storms before, but seeing it now made everything in me panic too. Rean lifted her knees, as if to get out of the car, but they kept going up, until cramped in a near-fetal position. Her eyes – still following me – and lips could almost be laughing until they cracked at the edges, simultaneously pinched and stretched. Her hands stiffened around a non-existent ball, no larger than an egg. There wasn’t a part of her that wasn’t shaking.
Something in me snapped into motion then, thrusting forward and pulling at her locked arms. She didn’t respond to my touch, but I had to try. Only her eyes seemed to be moving under her will. The receding floor to safety was only twenty yards away. I half carried, half dragged her that direction.
We were there when my membrane tore. The storm found its way in, fluffing it up like a feathery balloon around me. I gulped the last air I could before it escaped me entirely, fully aware that my effort to carry my friend’s dead weight was slowing me down.
No. Not dead. Not yet. She was a trooper – as strong as she was charismatic.
Finally we collapsed on the platform, which detected our weight and automatically started descending. I could feel my diaphragm starting to flex and convulse of its own accord, begging me to breathe and stopped only by my conscious efforts. I let go of my friend to lie down face up, hoping beyond logic that the posture would convince gravity to help keep the air in my lungs. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the edges of the tunnels and instead the corners of my vision that closed in the light as I stared.
Then, as the iris closed entirely, a blast of breathable air landed on us both. For a moment I just laid there, allowing my lungs to operate and convincing my stomach not to throw up from the ordeal.
Rean wasn’t moving.
I got to my knees by her side, trying to shake her to consciousness, but only the elasticity of her young and fair skin seemed to recover itself. Everything else was just as unwaveringly flexed and shaking as before. Her eyes were had closed during the ordeal. Had I taken too long?
The platform stopped our descent with a mild jolt, and I was grateful for the standard safety protocol that demanded medical staff be on standby.
It took me too long to stand, but once I did, I was ready to follow the gurney to the medical wing. Was she going to be okay? I had to know, to help. A palm on my shoulder reminded me that I had no medical expertise. I followed the arm to see the face of my commanding officer He locked gazes with me before nodding once, questioningly. You okay? he seemed to ask.
A steadier heartbeat was returning to my core, though I didn’t even try to voice my response. Instead, I just nodded, patting my bag and letting him know I was ready and had the device my friend had risked her life to deliver. Hopefully it was worth the price she may have paid.
The countdown timer on my wrist buzzed, startling me anew with its pointless reminder. I silenced it absently, wondering instead what had gone so wrong.

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