Holden drifted lazily at the bottom of the pool, watching his air bubbles float away to the surface. The black tiles were silky smooth. The tepid water and the dark tiles gave the bottom of the pool a womb-like quality. Holden had been a champion diver in his time, and now, whenever he travelled on business, he judged a hotel not by its suites or business centre, but by its swimming pool.
He ran his fingers over the slippery tiles. He felt the first twinge of his lungs using up their oxygen — a slight tug at the top of his stomach. But he stayed still, conserving his movement, watching the sunlight on the surface and the tiny particles in the water.
He listened to his body become more insistent. His lungs began to tug at his throat. He marvelled that to respond to his body's reflex here, at the bottom of the pool, would be catastrophic. To gasp for an intake of breath would flood his lungs and drown him. This was something beyond the understanding of his reflexes. His reflexes only knew so much. Survival, in this instance, depended on recognising the limitations of reaction.
Another 20 seconds: his chest was tight. He decided to surface, to recharge his lungs before coming down again. He propelled himself gently off the bottom with a controlled push and broke the surface, exhaling his stale air as he lifted himself onto the pool steps, emptying his lungs for that unparalleled feeling of a new draught of breath.
He sucked in, but there was nothing. His lungs collapsed, empty. He gasped. No air. He began gulping, like a stranded fish, as he slumped onto the steps at the pool's edge. No air. Was he sick? He looked around terrified, clutching his throat. Hotel guests lay sprawled at odd angles all over their recliners. In the far corner, one lay face down in the water.
Holden heard his pulse pounding in his temples. His chest felt like it was imploding. He gasped again, holding his diaphragm, which was functioning correctly. He could breathe — there just wasn't any air. Everything looked the same. Palm trees stood motionless in the sultry heat. No smouldering fireball. No signs of apocalypse. It was still and tranquil.
He knew he didn't have long, but that panic would shorten his grip. He felt dizzy. He saw a cluster of balloons hanging from one of the pool lamps, unmoved from last night's poolside party. He propelled himself to the lamp, tears clouding his eyes, thinking how much easier it was not to panic underwater which was supposed to be airless than on land, where you took breathing for granted.
His body was screaming now. He slowed his movements. He pictured surfacing patiently from a long dive, reaching for underwater disciplines here, above the surface. His heart pounded in his ribs and temples. He shoved a plastic chair against the lamp and hauled himself up to the balloons. He reached up and wrenched down a cluster. He picked frantically at a plastic knot around the throat of a balloon. He burst the first, catching a whiff of latex-flavoured air. He told himself to take more care. He remembered the pool attendant the previous evening, blowing up the balloons himself, between drink deliveries.
Holden undid the neck of the second balloon and brought it to his lips. He sucked the air through the scrunched rubber umbilical. The air tasted old and stale, but as the balloon sagged, he felt his lungs fill. He fought to calm himself.
He opened another balloon and inhaled. It wasn't oxygen rich, he knew, but it was something. He sculled another couple of lung-fulls, feeling his pulse ease a little. He knew he was lucky. Not many people had his lung capacity, or regularly practiced breathing exercises. His ability to dive deep had saved him. He figured if he stayed calm and moved with minimum exertion, he had maybe two minutes per balloon. He counted the bunch in his hand. He was holding twelve minutes, less 20 seconds for a calm, no-chance-of-bursting, undoing of each knot. He would stop every minute and a half.
As Holden moved around the pool, towards the hotel complex, he passed dozens of bodies. He paused only once to check a pulse. The eyes were explicit: full of shock. The eyes screamed: this is impossible. He understood the panic in those eyes. Air was a given. It was taken for granted. Some people had headed — inexplicably, in Holden's view — for the water. There were bodies face down in the pool. Betrayed by the atmosphere, had they had taken comfort in a regular drowning? Or simply sought to splash their faces, believing themselves to be in a dream, or unwell?
He exhaled slowly and drew another balloon-ration of air into his lungs.
The hotel hallways were the same: dead bodies in the passageways. One or two lodged in doorways, perhaps lasting a little longer in their air-conditioned rooms, then emerging in search of a maintenance man, only to come face-to-face with the truth, collapsing where they lay, slightly boggle-eyed like their ties had been done up too tight. These eyes had less panic and more outrage, as though death had been prefaced by angry but unsuccessful calls to Housekeeping.
Holden was into a rhythm now. He moved cautiously through the hotel, leaving a trail of shrivelled balloon skins. There was no use wondering why; it was plainly a question of "what?". He sat down in the marbled pavilion of the hotel foyer beneath gently turning fans he could no longer feel.
He sat quietly and had another balloon to regain his composure. He had four minutes. The recreation centre, he thought. He would go there.
Ramos, the Mexican dive shop attendant, had come to the same conclusion as Holden. He found the tanned diver, arms out-stretched and clasping, reaching towards a large yellow dive tank, a regulator in his other hand. Ramos had lacked Holden's critical advantage. It was too far from the reception area to the air-tanks in a single breath, especially if Ramos had foolishly but unknowingly exhaled just before there was no more air. Holden reckoned that with a lung-full he might have made it. Ramos had been unlucky in his timing. And he had lacked balloons. The poolside party had been his saviour, Holden could see this clearly now.
He noted as he strapped on a dive tank and adjusted a flow of air, that the eyes of Ramos were not panic-stricken, but determined, with a touch of sorrow at the corners. They were eyes focused on a plan they had believed in, grown sad at the last when it proved beyond them. Holden wondered whether this was a portent. Perhaps only those at home underwater would be left alive. Tomorrow's world would belong to those who respected environments: divers, or space walkers. For most, the future had become too implausible, too unacceptable. Thus survival, being unimaginable, was unattained.
Holden stood in the same place for several minutes, breathing calmly. He felt his pulse become more regular. Only now did his mind broaden its range of questions. He wondered how far this airless zone stretched. The whole city? The whole world? He corrected himself: in fact, the whole universe was an airless zone, and the world merely an air bubble within that void. Air was the exception, not the rule. This reality had forcefully reasserted itself in manner that left no clue at the Hotel Fortuna, or its immediate environs. The universe had reclaimed the earth. Here had simply become like everywhere else.
Holden checked his mouthpiece and his tank pressure. As distasteful as was the thought, he was thankful that the dead guests in the reception area had purchased the deluxe dive package. The eyes of these dead German tourists expressed confusion. Had they been in the act of imagining the rich coral reef for which they had been bound, when suddenly they became unable to breathe? Had Ramos, Holden wondered, wasted precious seconds worrying about his asphyxiating customers? Holden owed his survival as much to these people as he did the pool attendant who had blown up the balloons the night before when there had been so much air that some guests had complained about the sea breeze. Without full tanks at the ready, Holden would have been stuck. He looked at his watch, and set his alarm for forty minutes. He loaded the four spare dive tanks onto a porter's trolley and began to make his way back to the hotel reception.
He pushed the trolley gently along the hotel's covered walkways. Most present was the silence. He could hear nothing. Everything was still. Holden supposed that, in a complete vacuum, the world would implode. But would it? Was it just oxygen that was missing? The trees stood luxuriant in the hot sun. Combustion engines would be useless, he reasoned. He tried to comprehend a world without infrastructure. Our world was built on air, he thought. It wasn't solid at all. He foreclosed further philosophical musings. There would be time for musings only if he overcame the new nexus between air and time. Would an 'hour' be reduced to the standard duration of an air tank? Without air, the nature of time had altered incomparably. Everyone, not just broadcasters, would be governed by 'airtime'. At the hotel entrance he found an electric golf cart with some charge left. He decided first to go home.
"You've been a while," his wife Mandy said, as he opened the front door. He could tell from the frown above her breathing regulator that she was unhappy. The breathing apparatus distorted her face, like she was wearing a mouthguard, making her not fully recognisable. Even so, he was pleased he'd left his spare dive tank fully pressurised in the garage.
Stephen and Christie ran into his arms. "We missed you, daddy," they mouthed, quickly returning to suck on their colourful balloons. Although life-preserving, the balloons struck an unnerving image with Holden: his children had an air of being abandoned, like street kids - their balloons resembling glue bags.
He smiled at his children and told them to go down to the garage. His wife shook her head, sighed, and picked up their shrivelled empties and went back to the kitchen. Holden unloaded a spare tank from the golf cart and taught his children to buddy breathe.
"Where are you going, daddy?" Christie asked.
He looked up at his family. Mandy was crying now, which happened if you paused too long to let things sink in. He smiled at her, attempting reassurance, causing air to escape at the edges of his mouth.
"There may never be air again," he said, finally, "I'm going to find out what's going on."
On his way out, Holden passed the wall of family portraits in the hall, dominated by his grandmother whose eyes looked frightfully alive and whose carcinogenic smile cut like a razor through every family likeness. The smile was wicked, beatific and serenely frozen. An undertaker would have given his right arm to have perfected it. There was one of a much younger him, Holden Maxwell Browne, or Kingsy as his friends called him, holding his diving trophies, on the wall at the old Olympic pool. It was subtitled by his favourite quote at the time, from Albanian high diver and acrobat Rosti Ingenka: "The dive is the ultimate meeting of faith and action."
Holden went first to his office, on the first floor of a low rise in the main street. Some had fainted at their computer screens. Others had slipped away trying to open the windows. Like many modern buildings, the windows were sealed to contain the building's controlled atmosphere. His colleagues had mistaken the onset of an underwater world for a localised problem with the air conditioning. A few had tried in vain to prize open the windows. Not much had been disturbed. The plans he had been working on for a new water pipeline were still sitting on the boardroom table.
He looked down at his partner — now his ex-partner — slumped over his desk, telephone in hand. The numbers 111 were blinking on the telephone display. Ever trusting, his partner Max. He had sought assistance from the appropriate channels, when something much more radical had been required. But Holden was not reproachful. How could he be? Chance — or had it been destiny — had placed him at the bottom of a swimming pool when 'it' had happened. He had gone early and willingly into the underwater world, a choice that had proved decisive. He had not been required to grapple with the confusion of transition. Holden stroked Max's thinning blond hair, pushed him back upright in his swivel chair and replaced the receiver.
"Oh, Max," he said, "what the hell is going on?"
Holden's wristwatch alarm vibrated against his arm. He switched to his second tank. He took a final look around. His engineering prizes hung, in their place, on his office wall. He loved science. He knew that cause and effect, though simple in concept, were less intractably connected in the real world. His younger colleagues epitomised today's creative scientists, personifying an educationalist's recruitment drive that science isn't boring. They were children of extrapolation and unified theory, putting them at odds with Holden. He favoured observation and doubt. These tools he trusted. They were sufficient. To observe something objectively could take a lifetime's application.
The golf cart battery died half a mile down the street. He got out and walked. Queen Street looked fairly normal, except for the silence, which he knew wasn't necessarily silence, but merely that noise was not carrying to his ears. He prized exactitudes at a time like this.
Dead people were everywhere: in shops and cafes, boutiques and bus stops. Some faces were familiar from casual glances at a lunch break, or occasional Friday night drinks at a nearby pub. Did they now agree or disagree, he wondered, with the popular contention that drowning was not such a bad way to go?
The eyes of the Queen Street dead varied a great deal. There were some perished, looking like they were simply caught in mid breath. He recognised old Mrs Tredwell who sat, as she always did, next to her lotto stall, on a foldaway chair. Her eyes looked almost contented as though transfixed by a sudden thought.
There were eyes that expressed fear and regret. These eyes had died gasping, struggling, hauling themselves into the street, into phone booths, onto cars. Holden felt sympathy for these eyes in their crazy desperation, abandoned suddenly in a world without life support, striving to get somewhere, to reach some kind of help.
At the bottom of Vulcan lane, he passed one of the city's homeless, a wino that had possessed the presence of mind to put his paper bag over his head, apparently misdiagnosing his condition as hyperventilation. The crumpled brown bag half-covered his face like a condemned man's cowl.
At the Wyndham St lights, a man and a woman lay with their faces pressed close. She wore a business suit and he, jeans and sneakers. Were they lovers, Holden thought, avowed to die in each other's grasp? Or had one been a compassionate stranger attempting mouth-to-mouth on another before realising that his breath — that all breath — had failed?
Holden stood for a moment, at the traffic lights, letting his mind travel out across the world. He imagined halls of power, concourses of commerce, dens of domesticity - all fallen silent. The world would be left to deep sea divers returning to the surface, hospital patients under oxygen tents, mountaineers beyond the lowly grasp of atmosphere. It would not be the meek, but adventurers and the infirmed, who inherited the Earth.
For the first time since he scrambled from the pool, he felt slightly cheated that he had missed that moment — whatever it was — when the world had made its discovery. What had gone on in those three minutes he'd been underwater? The crashed cars, the disorder in the streets — these were symptoms, leaving no clue. What had caused this time-altering, fundamental shift? What had burst Earth's exceptional bubble in an airless universe? Maybe no one would ever know? The surviving world had more pressing concerns.
As walked up the street he began to feel again as though he were swimming. He checked the air mix from his tank. Yet the sensation continued to steadily come over him.
There were moments when he forgot that this was real, that it was really serious, perhaps finally the end. He hadn't yet made plans beyond the air tanks he had taken from the hotel. But he felt calm, like the whole world was underwater, and it wasn't such a bad thing.
From the roof of the stock exchange building, Mexican cliff-divers were working the deep, clear river running between the buildings. He thought that he saw Ramos, shouting and waving, before he dived, like a golden bullet from the rooftop to the liquid street.
Holden came suddenly to the edge of the village and walked into a field of tall grass. It was late summer and the grass came almost to his waist. Haymakers were working some way away. The late evening air was warm and dusty. He watched the soundless rustle of his legs brushing through the long stalks, which he likened to swimming through kelp, sloshing around rocks in a gently agitating tide.
In the distance he saw his grandparents' old farmhouse, smoke curling from a chimney into a smooth, grey sky.