So we’re going into the pods. I never thought it would get this far. It’s all the fault of the air, that horrible air.
Never to see the sky again. Never to walk or feel the soil beneath our feet. Never to see the world again, only the inside of a Deepbreathr.
Maybe I’m a romantic. Maybe it’s no big deal. A lot of the people who are already down there talk about their relief. They say the safety is enough. Freedom from the air is freedom enough.
It’s strange to think that this all started with one climber’s mishap. I can’t remember his name, although I’m sure the history books will record it. One of those rare figures who go down in history for their sheer bad luck.
The climber, whoever he was, fell down a narrow crack while trekking across a Himalayan mountain range. It was covered with snow, he said, and he didn’t see it until he fell. A gust of wind swept him off his feet and down he went.
The fall down the cliff-face broke both of the man’s arms and shattered his legs at the knee. When he finally hit the ground, he was amazed he wasn’t dead.
Then, lying there in agony, the chip in his snow jacket beeping out a silent SOS, he was the first to hear the air speak.
There are some who still won’t believe it. Cranks and scientists, mostly. They say that there’s no biological basis for asserting the air’s sentience. How could the air be sentient? It’s just a bunch of gases.
The air spoke to the fallen climber. It told him not to be afraid. That the rescue services were already on their way. They were starting up the helicopter. It could feel its blades as they began to slice.
The fallen climber couldn’t place the voice. Was it someone calling down from up above? Was it a hallucination? Was it God?
We now know that it was the air. The air itself had blown and blown, focusing all its energies into this narrow passage for century after century. It had carved itself a set of vocal chords. It had hewn them from the ice and the rock.
When the rescue teams arrived, they heard it too. It spoke to them. They spoke to it. It spoke back.
Air could not be sentient, we were told. Maybe it is only one patch of air? Maybe it is a swarm-intelligence; a set of spores caught in the wind? It cannot be all the air, surely? Not all of it, conscious, thinking?
But whatever they asked the air, it told them. It could feel every plane in the sky. It could measure the lung capacities of every breathing animal. Somehow, it could hear too. And somehow, it knew all of our names.
It had nothing to hear with. No ears. And no brain to store this data in. But scientists gave it every test of consciousness we had and it aced all of them.
The air speaks in every language. It knows every human song and every play. Its IQ can’t be measured as it answers every question instantly, and it is always right.
On a pure theoretical level, its knowledge was infinite. The air was sentient.
But was it alive?
After the climber was rescued, he gave interviews. The rescuers gave interviews too, and so did the scientists they sent out to speak to the air.
Soon the skies around the air’s Himalayan mouth were filled with helicopters and private planes. Every country flew in dignitaries, scientists and diplomats. All came out saying the same thing.
The news ran the story: the air is alive.
No-one had technically granted the air life yet. They still haven’t, come to think of it. But in those days, when humans were the only sentience worth counting, we could not conceive of sentience without life.
How could a thing that is not alive speak? How could a thing that is not even a thing speak?
The Earth was beset by a great psychic panic. We have seen them before. The dancing plagues. The birth of Christianity. Suddenly, the things we knew were uncertain. Worse, in fact; what we knew, we knew to be false. But what new things we needed to know, those things we call the truth; we didn’t know those yet.
Cults sprang up.
On one side, there were those who saw the sentient air as a mother goddess. It was a nurturing thing, they said, the living nature that keeps us alive.
The largest of these cults were the yogic breathers. They began in India before spreading to America and then, from there, all over the world. They wanted to bring their bodies into divine alignment with the air.
But we had always been breathing. We are made of the air. We need it to live.
That is the beauty of yogic breathing, said the yogis. We all do it anyway. You could not escape the religion, no more than you could escape air itself.
There were those who tried. To escape, that is.
Foremost among them was a company called Deepbreathr. A silicon valley start-up that turned into a megacorporation almost overnight. The company sold breathing apparatuses that promised to keep the air out.
They marketed themselves smartly. They played upon our natural human demand for consent. The air, a sentient entity, was entering and leaving us every hour of every day. This, they told us, was sinister, deeply sinister.
Where the air imposed itself on you, smothered you, Deepbreathr offered choice. Seventeen flavours of breathable atmosphere. All created in vacuum-sealed labs from raw particles untouched by air.
It was air all the same. There could be no doubt. The air told us so, from its mouth in the Himalayas.
It asked us why we tried to get away from it. We knew we couldn’t. We were all part of the same life. The air was inside those Deepbreathrs just as it was in the clouds and the trees and the bubbles under the sea.
Deepbreathr denied this. They said the air was spreading misinformation.
Humanity is flexible. That much I am sure of. In a few short months we were used to the new air. The same as the old air, for sure, but now with a voice.
People everywhere went back to normal. Life returned to its routines, only with a few more people wearing Deepbreathrs and a few more practicing yogic breathing on their lunch breaks.
It seemed that everything would be fine. That was, until flight KW358.
KW358 left LAX airport at 10:45 eastern standard time. It was heading for Japan. The flight never made it there.
At first, the plane was ruled to have disappeared entirely. There had been no distress signal and after sending out rescue planes to its last known location, no wreckage or survival rafts could be found. The flight had gone, and left no clues as to where or how it had disappeared.
Then the authorities realised they could ask the air.
The air’s mouth had, by this time, turned into a base of operations for many of the world’s most prominent scientists and thinkers. Time speaking with the air was highly sought after and a schedule was drawn up. Every quarter-hour slot was booked up for the next thirty-six years.
The crash investigators cut the queue. They cut short the time of a biologist who was asking the air to blow onto some slides for him. The next in line, a philosopher who wanted to ask the air about language, had his appointment cancelled. He would not live long enough to get another.
The inspectors asked the air what happened to the flight. The air told them where it sank and where the three survivors had been until they too, eventually sank. It was a budget airline and their life jackets had lasted only four hours.
The investigators nodded at this, and took notes. They thanked the air for its time.
Then, one the investigators asked a perilous question.
“If you could see this happening,” she asked the air, “why didn’t you do anything about it?”
For the first time the air remained silent.
Ever since the air first spoke to that unwary climber a few months earlier, it had never failed to answer a question. In fact, its millennia without speech had made it chatty. It wanted to use its new gift. It enjoyed it.
When the investigator asked about Flight KW358, the air was silent.
The arguments began then. Arguments in every household and in every office. Arguments in the streets as panicking protesters shattered their placards and beat at each other with the sticks beneath.
The yogic breathers said that this was just one of the air’s great mysteries. We must respect its silence. Perhaps, they hinted, it was communicating on some deeper level; a level that only those practiced in yogic breathing could attune to.
Deepbreathr sales skyrocketed and the wearing of a Deepbreathr became a political statement in itself.
The air crashed that plane, the most ardent Deepbreathrs cried. It cannot be trusted.
Even those in the middle were turning to Deepbreathrs, believing it better to be safe than sorry.
Yogic breathers flocked to the Himalayas. They surrounded the science park and demanded to speak to the air directly.
They wanted the air to speak to them. They wanted it to deny any culpability in the downing of KW358. They believed that the air was not responsible for its own actions. They believed that the air was already saying this, but the scientists were covering it up.
They surrounded the facility and chanted for a week.
At the end of the week people started to leave and so the few remaining militants rushed the gates, seized the gatehouse and let thousands of cultists rush the facility.
They got to the mouth of the air, and asked it about the flight. They asked it more than that too. They asked it about its intentions. Did it care for us, the humans? Could it control things, or was it merely blown around by the laws of nature?
The air stayed silent.
Some yogic breathers cried, some celebrated. They left the science park and returned to their homes. The air continued to answer the questions of those who didn’t ask about the air itself.
Then, autumn came. Only five months after we had first learned that the air was alive, hurricane season began.
The winds came the way they always come. The Caribbean was swept by tropical storms. The tramontane blew cold over Italy. Twisters twisted over corn fields in Idaho, the hurricanes hit Florida and tsunamis rocked the Japanese coast. It was normal.
Hawaii. Even Hawaii was normal, in the grand scheme of things. We have had horrific storms before, terrible storms, and this one was one of the worst. There were deaths. Holidaymakers dying in their dozens. But, remember, in the great scope of world history, these things too are normal.
But not for us. Not for humans alive now and filled with pride in our own special nowness.
For us, seeing every effect as the product of a cause, and in every cause an intention, these winds were the vengeance of the living air.
Everyone suddenly had Deepbreathrs. Even prominent champions of yogic breathing were seen wearing them. Nobody trusted the air and, for the air’s part, it was still saying nothing.
That horrible, horrible air. So benign otherwise. So childlike. Why, in this of all things, did it have to be so mysterious?
Some thought it was lying. Some thought it had a secret. Others simply said it was a monster.
As for me? I think that maybe the air itself didn’t know.
Who can know why bad things happen? Who can know why we ourselves do bad things?
But the work was done. The trust was lost. It was over.
It took no time at all. Within days the world’s governments came together to condemn the air. Massive projects began to build cities underground. The contracts for building them all went to Deepbreathr.
The Deepbreathr cities are vacuum sealed. All the air that’s in them has been made in a lab; the chemical ingredients are shipped in, frozen, absolutely aseptic.
Awful plans were made. It took very little to get the majority of people on board with them. In the democracies, the majority was all you needed. Outside of the democracies, you didn’t even need that.
And so we’re being marched into the pods. That’s what I’ve come to call these cities. Many like me have. Those of us who still don’t fear the air, only despise it – hate it for speaking when its silence was one of our only joys. We call our future the pools.
Now there will be no more fresh air. Only the pods we sleep in. Only the pods where we work and the pods where we eat. We will forget about the world outside, for the world outside will be gone.
Some say that the governments will gas the whole Earth. Some say they’ll burn off the ozone layer. Others still, say they’re setting off the nukes. It almost doesn’t matter. Now we’re underground there is only the pods.
I hope the air lives, although I do not think it was ever really alive. I hope that I get to breathe the air again. Where there is life, or even just the appearance of life, there is hope.
About The Author
Joseph Darlington is a writer from Manchester, UK. His books Avon Murray (2016) and Spare the Glass Picnic (2018) are available from www.josefadarlington.co.uk. He is co-editor of the Manchester Review of Books and can be found on Twitter at @Joe_Darlo
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