"He says he was there for five hundred days."
"Five hundred days. Impossible. How?"
"No idea. He said he learned to breathe air."
"Crazy. I know. But you've seen the changes, you saw how his skin was
all red and rough when we brought him back."
"The crew did say his chest was heaving, when they saw him. Thought it
was some kind of spasm. Some kind of sickness."
Kam can hear the voices outside the ward. Doc Forvin, and the skeptic,
another man he doesn't recognize.
"This is crazy. Crazy!"
Forvin walks in.
"Kam? I'd like you to meet Chief Scientist Lavell. He wants to run some
"Not too painful, I hope." Kam coughs into his fist. His skin still has a
pinkish tinge; his throat is sore, the Wine irritating it. He feels foggy.
(Back on the island: no fog, clear thought, octopus strength. Glowing
skin. He could move boulders under his own power, do trigonometry in
his head. All without the Wine, like it was the most natural thing...)
"We'll need to draw some blood. That's all for now."
"Fine by me."
Forvin and Lavell are gray, granite gray. People are gray, that's the
way they are; babies are born pale, start to turn a healthier gray with
their first breath of Wine. But it no longer looks healthy to Kam.
He talks to Lavell as Forvin takes out the needles.
"How long were you stuck on that island, up there?" Lavell asks.
"Five hundred days, give or take."
He remembers: the thirst, the pain, the suffocating feeling in his
chest. Collapsing to the black soil. Finally opening his mouth to gulp
in air; first in mad desparation, then in agony, and finally in relief.
"I figured out how to breathe air."
"That's impossible, Kam. Human bodies are designed for Wine. A few
breaths every few hours -"
"But here I am." He raises a pinkish-gray hand, turns it over. Coughs.
It feels strange to be talking without breathing, his trachea closed;
but the air down here in the city provides no nourishment, and tastes
of tar and filth.
"You didn't have a supply -"
"No." Kam thinks. "Mr. Lavell, don't you wonder what I ate and drank on
Lavell raises his eyebrows. "It's not as big a mystery, but -"
Kam continues. "There was a spring on one of the hills, for water.
There were fish and octopuses on the beach - squid too. Little ones,
not Wine producers."
"How did you catch them?"
Kam grins. "Bare hands. Air makes you faster. Makes you think clearer,
Lavell is looking at Forvin. He looks... frightened, Kam thinks. He
"You think he's on to something," Forvin says.
"I think he's telling the truth."
Lavell looks directly in his eyes, gray face grim. "In my capacity as
Chief Scientist, I am ordering to be utterly silent about this. Speak
of it to nobody else. On pain of death."
Kam's face betrays him. "You have got to be kidding me."
"There will be panic if this gets out, Kam -"
"Dr. Lavell." Kam can barely contain himself. "We have been at war with
Gannishmen for over forty years now."
"Do not even think about -"
"We have been at war, for forty years, because of the Wine. The squid
population's declining, we all know that. More and more don't produce.
And the ones that can, don't produce as much. Attempts to farm them,
to breed them in tanks, have all been for nil.
"And now you know that people, at least some people, can breathe air.
Sure, it has to be clean enough - well, you could pipe the stuff down
here from the mountains. The point is -"
"The point," Kam bludgeons on, "is that people are getting shot to
pieces out there, and being bombed, and living half-lives or even
dying of suffocation because there's not enough Wine to go around.
People cannot breathe, man! Think about that -"
"Enough, I said!"
"Think about what it would mean, if we didn't need it. If people could
breathe something that's everywhere, and doesn't cost anything.
"It could stop the war. It would save so many lives..."
"Lavell - he's right. Listen to him."
"Lavell - "
"Dr. Lavell, have you wondered why I'm not taking to the Wine again?
Where the withdrawal symptoms came from, when I started breathing the
"Kam, just -"
"I think humans evolved to breathe air, in the first place. The Wine
"Humans didn't evolve. This is nonsense."
"Think about it, Lavell. Think about it. Fish and octopuses evolved
in water, and they breathe it. Humans walk on land. What if we weren't
"How would we even happen in the first place, Lavell, if we couldn't
breathe the stuff around us?"
Lavell sighs. "Alright. Alright. But one word of this, and I'll have
you both executed on the spot."
He turns, paces out of the room.
"Goddamn. And I didn't even get to take any blood."
"I thought it might work. For once, I thought something might work."
Forvin shrugs. "The vaguaries of the state -"
"It's garbage. Absolute garbage." He looks Forvin in the eyes. "How much
do you spend on Wine a week?"
Forvin mumbles something.
"Over ten thousand creds. Over a third of my salary."
He has a wife, Kam thinks. And a kid, maybe two.
"When I crashed on the island, it would have been -" his brain drags it
out, foggy on Wine. "Seven thousand, probably. Maybe a little more."
Forvin nods. "And the quality's been getting worse, too. The Wine
we've been getting is usually stale, half-depleted. Sometimes makes my
"This can't go on."
"No. It can't."
Forvin starts putting the tubes away, slips the needles in a sharps
Humanity, Kam thinks. Oh, what a state we're in. To have once breathed
the free air, and now rely on squid exudate, walking through dirty
gray cities with raw throats and gray skin and closed-off trachea.
Walking in a perpetual fog, delusion and war and government hypoxia all
in one giant greasy ball -
"I'm going back."
Forvin opens his mouth.
"You can come with me. You can bring your family."
"I - it doesn't -"
"I'll teach you how to catch fish, build a fire."
Forvin averts his eyes. "The Gannishmen."
"Yes, what about them?"
"The week after we pulled you off the island, a Gannish missile went
slightly off target."
"Oh, no -"
"Gone. Blown to radiactive pieces."
Kam buries his face in his hands.
Never again. Kam's chest burns. He'll never get away.
"Do you... " He clears his throat. "Get me some Wine."
Maybe I'll get used to it, Kam thinks, as Forvin retrieves the dark bottle
of squid-stuff, hooks it up to an aspirator tube. Maybe. Give it time.
But God, it hurts.