Written for the WA one word prompt challenge - my word was "percent".

Eighteen percent

The little girl was still twenty yards from safety when she tripped and fell for the second time. My heart contracted in sympathy, but I had a job to do. Man the shelter door. My responsibility was to the people inside. I couldn't save those who didn't make it. Even if they were about five years old and sobbing for their mummy, who was probably lying dead in the ruined streets behind her.

"Come on!" I yelled. "You can do it! Run to me!"

She couldn't, though. She was hurt, and spent, and she wasn't getting up, and I had to close the shelter door before the air inside was too contaminated for the filters to clear.

And then a dark shadow came out of nowhere, scooped her up, covered the distance to me in ten strides.

"Inside," the Condor snapped, and I wasn't going to argue.

.

Rollcall was possibly the saddest few minutes of my life. This shelter had a hundred named locals assigned to it, plus twenty unassigned spaces. Twenty-three locals had made it here, including me. The little girl wasn't on my list, so people in some other shelter would be assuming the worst about her. The Condor wouldn't be assigned to any shelter anywhere on Riga, of course. I wondered if his team-mates knew where he was, and why he was here at all.

The register done, I checked the air quality figures and reached for the vent controls, but a blue-gloved iron grip closed round my wrist.

"Don't."

I pointed at the percentages on the screen, already well below optimum. "I need to cycle the air."

"The last set of Spectran bombs were nerve gas." His Rigan was competent, fluent even, but not native. "Your filters will not handle it. You need to seal us in. Do it."

I didn't dare argue. It would cause panic, and panic burned oxygen. He'd spoken softly and so far nobody else seemed to have noticed.

Filters off. External vents off. Switch to the emergency supply. I only realised how obvious it would be as the fans spun down, but by then all eyes were on the Condor, using something attached to his gun to weld the doors shut.

"What are you doing?" That was Ensam, who ran the local pharmacy. "We'll suffocate in here!"

The creeping trace of red hot molten metal at the tip of his gun never slowed. "You prefer to breathe nerve gas? The air out there is poison."

"So you say."

"He has no reason to lie," I put in.

"He isn't Rigan. We die below eighteen percent oxygen. He doesn't."

Every set of eyes turned to the environmental control screen. Oxygen level just below Rigan normal at twenty-three percent. As we watched, it flickered. Twenty-two point nine.

"We'll be dead in half an hour at this rate! Open the vents!"

"Ensam," another woman said - I forgot her name, but she worked in the clothing store next to his pharmacy. "He said nerve gas."

"Sure, he said it..." He headed for the door, wild panic in his eyes.

Given the Condor's reputation, I was expecting a fist to the jaw. I wasn't expecting a tight grip on Ensam's shoulder and a quiet murmur of "Breathe steady, friend. You can do this."

Twenty-two point eight - why was it falling so quickly? We should have several hours of emergency oxygen, even if the shelter was full. I toggled the switch again. It didn't feel right, and thinking back, it hadn't felt right the first time either, and the indicator light which should show that it was working didn't come on. For a moment I wanted to panic myself, and a fine example that would have been. But I managed not to, and Ensam nodded, abruptly sagging to sit on the steps leading up to the door. He folded his arms on his knees and dropped his head onto them, visibly struggling to control his breathing.

"Sorry," he muttered. "Not good with small spaces."

I hadn't known he was claustrophobic, but it explained why, despite being a respected community figure, he hadn't been given a position of authority within the shelter. I was one of five nominated shelter wardens, but the only one here. Which made the shelter, and the people in it, my responsibility alone. Even if we were sharing it with the most senior soldier I'd ever met.

I caught the Condor's eye as best I could as he completed the seal, and jerked my chin towards the empty corner to the right of the doors, as close to privacy as we were going to get.

"He's right," I said as quietly as I could. "Maybe a little longer than half an hour, but not much. I'm not going to tell them, but the emergency supply isn't working. Below eighteen percent oxygen we die very quickly."

"The nerve toxin will kill you a lot faster than that."

I had to ask. "How do you know?"

"Breathed some."

I gasped. "Are you...?"

"I'll live. You wouldn't. Can you radio for help?"

I was rather hoping nobody was going to ask that. The whole communications section of the control panel was as dead as the emergency oxygen supply, had been ever since I'd reached the shelter. Probably all due to the same missile which had taken out the new apartment block just across the road. Many of the people who hadn't answered at rollcall lived there.

Had lived there.

My expression must have said enough.

"I'll contact my team. You have your people sit quiet and calm. Uses less oxygen."

Not that they were exactly holding wild parties now, but there was chat and movement. He was right. It needed to stop.


G-2 to Phoenix, come in.

Phoenix here. G-2, where are you?

Civilian shelter. Tell me you have a neutralising agent for that gas. It's nasty.

Sure. Spraying it now. Air'll be clear in three hours.

About that. We've got forty minutes until we're relying on filters.

(Pause). Copy that, G-2. Stand by.


"Kairi?"

I opened my eyes, ready to explain again that we needed to stay still and quiet to conserve oxygen, but Wenda's expression stopped me. Four of her children were on the register for this shelter, but only two of them were here, twin babies who had thankfully done nothing but sleep. I'd reassured her that the older two were surely in the shelter at school, and that we were getting no messages at all on the dead comm, not just no messages for her, but she still looked devastated, and scared, and uncertain.

"What's wrong?" Not the best thing I could have said, and for a moment I wondered if she'd give me a list.

Instead she indicated the bigger room. "The little girl - she's not well. Her breathing's bad and getting worse. I think she was gassed. She needs a doctor."

We should have had a doctor. He hadn't made it either.

Wenda continued to look at me hopefully, and I tried to think of something. No doctor. No nurses. No comms to get advice. Any first aid the Condor knew would be intended for human supersoldiers rather than Rigan preschoolers.

"Go back to her," I said. "I'll find some help."

.

"Ensam?"

He didn't respond, and I put a hand on his shoulder. "Ensam, we need you."

His head came up just far enough to look at me. There was barely contained fear in his eyes, and I almost reconsidered. But there wasn't anyone else.

"The little girl - she may have breathed some of the nerve gas. Is there anything in our medical kit that could help her?"

"I'm not a doctor."

"It's you or me. I'm a systems analyst."

Ensam swallowed hard and stood up, reaching to the wall for support. "Where is she? Where's the medicine chest?"

He headed for the second room, and I realised there was a second pair of eyes on me. The Condor gave me what I hoped was an approving nod and closed his eyes again, leaning back against the doors. Nobody was getting out without going through him.

With something to do, Ensam seemed calmer. He gave the little girl a shot of something and her breathing did seem to ease, at least somewhat. She was still pale and blue-lipped, though. Not good, and the falling oxygen levels could only make it worse. Barely above twenty percent, now.

Why was twenty percent significant? Because when it went below twenty...

"Look after her," I said, and forced myself to walk calmly and slowly back to the control panels. Ensam probably wouldn't be the only one who would lose it when the low oxygen alarms started to go off. Those things were loud - as part of our training, the wardens had been given a full demonstration of every noise the system might make and what they all meant. The oxygen alert was especially insistent, as when you're low on oxygen you think less clearly.

Was I thinking less clearly? Possibly. But I still thought that alarm going off in the next five minutes would be a seriously bad idea.

The cover on the right hand side unclipped easily. All I needed to do was disconnect the right wire from the speaker. It was... wait, what colour was it? There was a blue one, and a green one, and green with red bands... I knew this. It should be easy. But my brain simply refused to remember which wire did what.

"What are you doing?" The Condor was at my shoulder, and I hadn't even heard him move.

"Oxygen alarm goes off at twenty percent. It's loud."

"Which wire?"

I looked at him miserably. "I don't know. I should know."

"Oxygen deprivation? Leave it to me."

He didn't exactly push me aside, but I'd have struggled to stay where I was, and abruptly I very much didn't have enough air. It wasn't that low. Couldn't be. Eighteen percent, that was what we learned. We weren't down to twenty yet.

"Sit down. Breathe steady."

I did what I was told, more than a little embarrassed, and it helped somewhat. I guess you really do need less oxygen sitting down than standing up. Slow, steady breaths. Stay calm. I tried to count them, but I kept losing my place and having to start again. I had to do better than this. I was needed. I was in charge.

I jolted alert as my elbow slipped off my knee. Had I been asleep? Surely not. I'd been counting breaths just a moment ago. I didn't feel as if I'd slept. And yet...

I glanced into the second room. Nobody appeared to be alert in there. Nobody was trying to stand up, or even move. Willa sat on the floor, the little girl in her lap, her head back and her eyes closed. Ensam's head was on his folded arms again. The oxygen sensors must be wrong. We couldn't be more than a fraction below twenty percent oxygen yet.

The screen said we were almost at eighteen. Doors still welded shut; fans still disabled. The Condor stood at the top of the steps, listening intently to something.

"We're out of time," I tried to say. It was incomprehensible even to me.

He looked up, locked eyes with me. "Trust me," he said. And the world went black.


I woke up again in a refugee camp, with the sun beating down through the canvas of an emergency tent. It was another two days before they told me that two of my charges hadn't made it, both elderly. The little girl was still desperately sick, but was expected to live. Our town was gone, along with many, many others. Our planetary government had surrendered. Riga was a Spectran colony world now. We'd lost.

But we were still alive, and out there somewhere, the Condor and his team were still fighting.


Author's note: Jason (the Condor) is human, he'll be just fine for a few hours (and conscious) down to an oxygen concentration of about 10%, though the CO2 might be an issue before then. Rigans aren't human.

Riga falling to Spectra is canon, though there's no canon on the details.