Death by Atmosphere



“I can’t believe you lifted the old man’s security badge, Aldin. He’ll freak when he finds out.”

“If he finds out, Sierra. He’s lousy about checking the logs, so he’ll never see it was used after hours when he wasn’t at the lab.”

The two teenagers had already gotten into the building using the back entrance of Dr. Richard Batchelder’s personal lab at the Hawke-Edwards Advanced Research facility. They were now using the service elevator to descend to the sub-basement where Aldin’s grandfather had built the portal.

“Here we are.” With just a bit of a dramatic flourish, the seventeen-year-old boy swiped the security card across the reader and the doors to the lab containing the experimental spatial portal slid open.

“Wow. I mean, this is it?” Sierra’s eyes went wide as she gazed at the large circle which dominated the center of the room. “Does he leave it on like this all the time?”

“Sure. He has to. Gramps isn’t sure if the field will form again if he lets it collapse, or if it does form, if it’ll create the point-to-point link between Earth and Alpha Three.”

“And he brought you down here? He showed you this? I thought it was supposed to be a big secret.”

“Gramps and I have always been tight. He tells me stuff he probably doesn’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“So if we stepped through there, we’d really be on another planet light years away.”

“That’s the theory. Gramps is still studying the portal’s stability, so he hasn’t even sent any drones in yet.”

Sierra brushed an untamed lock of blonde hair out of her eyes and walked over to the main control console. “These are environmental readings…from the other planet?”

“That’s right. Supposedly it’s a lot like Earth. Similar temperature, liquid water on the surface, Oxygen-Nitrogen atmosphere. There are indications of plant life, but so far no animals.”

The teenage girl moved closer to the portal. It was actually a sphere, not a flat circle. As she walked nearer to the threshold, the murky and shifting blues, yellows, and greens began to resolve into an image of the other side.

“Hey, don’t get so close. Gramps says the edge of the portal fluctuates.”

“Relax. I’m not that close. I just want to get a better look.” Sierra stopped a few feet from the portal and could see the edges were fuzzy. It was hard to tell where the field actually began. “Like Earth, right? I mean, you could go through and be okay?”

“Nobody knows that for sure yet, Sierra. Besides, even if it worked, passing through the portal could change the field integrity. If it collapsed, you’d be stuck on the other side.”

The sixteen-year-old sighed. “I guess you’re right, Aldin.”

She turned her back to the field and took a step toward where her boyfriend was standing by the main control console. The field momentarily surged and the discharge struck Sierra. There was a flash of light and when Aldin’s vision cleared, he could still see his girlfriend on the other side of the portal standing on an alien world.

“Sierra! Get back here now!” He rushed forward in time to see her fall to the surface of Alpha Three among lush greenery. Aldin ran into the portal and through. He had barely started to pick Sierra up when he collapsed. In less than a minute, they had both stopped breathing.


“So that’s what killed them, Dr. Batchelder?”

“That’s right, Detective.” Richard Batchelder stood stiff-lipped by the environmental console where six hours before, his now dead grandson had described to his girlfriend how Earth-like Alpha Three was supposed to be.

“I told poor Aldin how the other planet was comparable to Earth, barring further tests of course. It does have an Oxygen-Nitrogen atmosphere similar to ours, but the concentration of Oxygen is just under ten percent, making the air unbreathable by humans.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Doctor.”

“Yes. Thank you, Detective.” Batchelder’s lower lip was trembling. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to arrange for the…the bodies to be recovered.”

One of my jobs at my current place of employment is to create and edit safety documents involving the performance of hazardous duties. I basically work at a manufacturing plant, so there’s a lot of dangerous stuff involved, including exposure to nitrogen in an enclosed space.

I looked up an article called Nitrogen: The Silent Killer at EHS Today and read that an oxygen concentration below 19.5 percent is considered unsafe. We like to think since most of Earth’s atmosphere is composed of nitrogen that it’s okay to breathe, but only with the right concentration of oxygen. Too little oxygen and we’d die of asphyxiation.

Many nitrogen related industrial accidents involve rescuers who rush into an enclosed space to save the collapsed person only to fall victim themselves. That’s what happened to Aldin after he saw Sierra go unconscious on the other side of the portal.

I had wanted to write something like “Murder by Air” involving a plot to kill someone by reducing the oxygen concentration in an enclosed space, but nothing came immediately to mind. This is my “back up” story.


8 thoughts on “Death by Atmosphere

  1. I prefer an uncanny accident to a murder…it’s more interesting…and touches the heart. I knew the girl would go…I didn’t know the boy would try to rescue her.


    • Actually, she was turning around and starting to walk away from the portal when the energy field fluctuated and struck her, pulling her inside. Of course her boyfriend tried to rescue her, especially when she saw she had collapsed. I felt the story was pretty much predictable except for the final outcome.


    • In this case, the story was taking the fact that below a certain oxygen concentration in our air, we wouldn’t be able to breathe, and then applying it to a piece of fiction. Our atmosphere has around 21% oxygen (20.95%). If that percentage fell to 19.5 or below, we would no longer have breathable air. That’s only like 2.5% which is pretty amazing.

      This also illustrates that no matter how many planets we find in the “Goldilocks zone” orbiting other stars, their ability to sustain our form of life (assuming we could ever reach them) is based on a very delicate balance.


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