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"I forged a concept which is relatively simple and possibly unique in theology, and that is, the irrational is the primordial stratum of the universe."
- Philip K. Dick

Pail of Air  
  A small bucket filled with (liquid) air.  

After the rogue star came through, and took the Earth away from the sun and left it floating in interstellar space with nothing to keep it warm, the atmosphere was different. More compact.

Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air. I'd just about scooped it full and most of the warmth had leaked from my fingers when I saw the thing.

You know, at first I thought it was a young lady. Yes, a beautiful young lady's face all glowing in the dark and looking at me from the fifth floor of the opposite apartment, which hereabouts is the floor just above the white blanket of frozen air.


(From "A Pail of Air" by Fritz Lieber)

Pa handled the pail of air in a twist of cloth. Now that it was inside the Nest, you could really feel its coldness. It just seemed to suck the heat out of everything. Even the flames cringed away from it as Pa put it down close by the fire.

Yet it's that glimmery white stuff in the pail that keeps us alive. It slowly melts and vanishes and refreshes the Nest and feeds the fire...

You see, when the Earth got cold, all the water in the air froze first and made a blanket ten feet thick or so everywhere, and then down on top of that dropped the crystals of frozen air, making another white blanket sixty or seventy feet thick maybe.

Of course, all the parts of the air didn't freeze and snow down at the same time.

First to drop out was the carbon dioxide—when you're shoveling for water, you have to make sure you don't go too high and get any of that stuff mixed in, for it would put you to sleep, maybe for good, and make the fire go out. Next there's the nitrogen, which doesn't count one way or the other, though it's the biggest part of the blanket. On top of that and easy to get at, which is lucky for us, there's the oxygen that keeps us alive. Pa says we live better than kings ever did, breathing pure oxygen, but we're used to it and don't notice. Finally, at the very top, there's a slick of liquid helium, which is funny stuff. All of these gases in neat separate layers. Like a pussy caffay, Pa laughingly says, whatever that is.

From A Pail of Air, by Fritz Leiber.
Published by Galaxy Science Fiction in 1951
Additional resources -

Compare to barrel of air from The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1828) by Jane Webb Loudon, the oxygen hip flask from Earth (1990) by David Brin and the airmaker from Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from A Pail of Air
  More Ideas and Technology by Fritz Leiber
  Tech news articles related to A Pail of Air
  Tech news articles related to works by Fritz Leiber

Pail of Air-related news articles:
  - Io's Sulphur Dioxide

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