by J. Daniel Batt
The iron whispers to me. We’re waiting. No one else can hear the echo of the voices in the metal of this lowering cage. I know I’m just imagining their many words; they are simply an illusion, but a palpable one. It’s only the static crackling from the headset. Even if the iron was haunted with the thousands of the dead, I couldn’t actually hear them inside this suit. I’m buffered from everything: touch, sight, sound; it is all filtered through the suit.
Everything seems slowed down inside this thick ebony fabric. I move more slowly. I hear less.
I take a deep breath, and the air seems to flow into my lungs more slowly than it should, as if the world is at half-speed. I gasp as I struggle for a deeper breath. No. Calm yourself. I should have enough oxygen for thirty minutes, maybe a bit more. I doubt I’ll need more than ten minutes, tops.
However, Edmond insisted I fill the tank full. I argued that I would do a lot better with even a pound less on my back. “Two point six pounds, that’s it.” He said it twice, as he always does when he wants to end a discussion. I pull the straps tight and the little canister of 2.6 pounds of oxygen feels snug against my back. Its temperature is 12.8 degrees Celsius. It’s reading just fine.
The elevator grinds to a halt, and the metal door unlocks with a tiny clink. I push against it, and it opens, evoking a slow creak of the iron. I walk through the main corridor. The empty thump of my boots against the grates sounds like the ticking of a second hand on a watch.
I keep the pace but find myself holding back from running. I can’t remember the last time I was this anxious. I shouldn’t be, but I am. If I run, it’ll look bad. For some reason, the boys in their suits have adopted the strange notion that enthusiasm leads to errors. I walk because they are watching me, and we are far too close for me to risk this mission.
Most kids know what they want to be when they grow up at the earliest age. Fireman, race car driver, president, crack whore. It doesn’t matter to me, because I never wanted to be any of those things. I wanted this. I was reading Emily Dickinson’s poems. I imagine her words today as an anthem as I prepare to push out into the void, into that endless night.
I’m the first. When they write about me, I’ll be listed as “the first person to...” or “the first woman to...” or “the first blonde to...” or “the first thirty-year old woman with the smallest ears ever to...” Whatever category I can fit into it, I get the pleasure of the being the first to do this. No one else has taken this journey.
Well, except for Bip. And the three hamsters. But everyone remembers Bip the monkey. His wild screaming eyes before he launched. Then the stillness, the complete look of shock as he returned. I’ve looked at that monkey’s photos hundreds of times. If I fail, that’s what I get to look forward to: a mindless existence. A body with no mind. No sign at all of a mind.
There’s a foot of iron wall between me and that room. All I have to do is walk over the threshold, and this crazy journey to the other side begins.
Edmond’s voice crackles in my headset: “Remember, don’t talk to her.” His irritation comes through so clearly it’s difficult to remember he’s more than two miles away. There are only two people down here: me and my link. The person I’m not to talk to.
I step through the door and see her sitting across the room. The room is dark, and the ceiling curves over us. We’re in a sphere, a magnetically shielded iron sphere. The walls are made of iron. The floor is an iron grate. It’s all iron.
Then there are the lights. The walls are lined with ten strips of lights coming down from the high point of the ceiling stretching vertically to the floor, bright LED things that switch color to let us know what’s happening. Right now, they’re blue, an ocean cyan that tints everything in the room including me and my link.
My link sits across the room. She’s already strapped in. Her suit is much smaller and thinner than mine. And she has no oxygen tank. But that’s because she’s only making half the journey. The tan fabric is crumpled at her joints and strips of orange line the seams. Wires, thin and many, lead out of sockets attached to her suit, and underneath the cloth, attached to her. Probably inserted into her.
The rod guns are positioned against each side of her head, to strike her temples. I can’t see a bit of skin except for her face underneath her domed helmet. But I don’t want to look at her. It’s better that I don’t know who I’m making this journey with. I turn my back to her and stand in position in the center of the room.
“I’m in,” I tell Edmond.
“We’re good to go?”
I hesitate as a flutter starts up in my stomach and I begin to sweat. I could step out. I could. I don’t have to do this.
“Yes. Good to go,” I say.
The room changes color to a bright green, and the iron door slowly slides shut. It clanks as its locks latch into place. I glance around the room and notice the various signs they’ve posted. Most are in English. Some, in Old Norse.
The ones in English are the boring ones. “Stand clear.” “No objects on this grate.” “Emergency release.”
The others are far more interesting, although I can barely read them now. When I first started studying for this mission, I had to know them all. I passed the test and forgot them promptly afterwards. A few still make sense. “Descend.” “The threshold moves.” “Open and cross through.” They aren’t for warning, they’re for operation. This room wouldn’t work without them. For that reason, they’re not stickers or painted like the English signs. They’re etched into the iron girders that line the room. I would’ve hated to be the guy who had that job: one misspelling and you’re screwed.
Edmond’s voice booms in my headset: “Launch is activated. Countdown clock at one minute and counting.”
“Step a bit back from the mic next time, Ed.” I wish I could rub my ears, but I have these damn mitts on, and there’s an inch of helmet between my head and the air.
From the loudspeaker in the wall, a female voice begins counting: “T minus 60 seconds.” The green LEDs flicker twice and switch to a bright yellow. “Mix engaged.”
There’s a strange whir below us and then I feel my link’s fear slam into me like a wave. I wipe my faceplate, even though I know it’s fogging from inside, from my own sweat. I shiver again. She’s scared. I thought I was nervous, but she’s frightened. This next minute is the worse. I’ve practiced the Mix hundreds of times, but not with a real link. Not with someone seconds from death.
“T minus 50 seconds.” There’s additional chatter on the mic, half of which I don’t understand and from voices I don’t recognize. Edmond is one of many. There’s a massive team around him up there. There’s only two of us down here.
“First stage to 100 percent.”
“Up and down. 100 percent.”
“Umbilical purge to open.”
“Miskatonic external power to on.”
“External confirmed.” And it continues as I struggle under the waves of emotion from my link.
It’s supposed to be only emotion. In the training, it was just emotion. Surprise. Anger. Jealousy. Fear. But as the countdown continues and my link’s fear rises, the Mix begins to send over more than just feelings. I hear a name in my head: Kate. Inaudible but loud.
I grunt and mutter, “No. No information exchange.” We were warned. Dangerous.
Edmond chirps in: “What was that?”
“Nothing,” I say through gritted teeth.
“T minus 40 seconds.”
“N.C.O., report threshold go for launch.”
“Threshold is go for launch.”
Edmond confirms the other voices. “Official, you’re go for launch.”
Six Flags. I have to focus on the roller coasters. Two years ago, I went to Six Flags and it was one of the greatest days of my life, for a hundred other reasons. It’s my anchor thought. If I don’t focus on something other than my link, her fear will become mine. I’m the balance in the Mix.
I think about the coasters. I try to remember the exhilaration of the ride. The screaming of the people next to me. Her fear ebbs a bit, and I know she’s feeling me as much as I’m feeling her. The name that had been screamed in my head dies away.
“T minus 30 seconds.” At 30, the lights overhead switch to a strobing orange.
I disobey protocol and glance over my shoulder at my link. She’s younger than I expected. Thirty. Maybe thirty-five with a short brown cut tight around her face.
Edmond crackles in my headset, “Stop that now!” I forgot he can see me. Everyone at Mission Control can see me. There’s probably hundreds of cameras in this room, all of them looking at me.
My link shuts her eyes tight as I whip back around. “Sorry.”
“T minus 20 seconds.”
“It’s fine. Just don’t talk to her.”
“19.” The voice begins the second-by-second count. I hate this part. Like a roller coaster moving up that first big ascent, knowing the huge drop is coming. The clank of the wheels against the rails. The strange sense of fear and excitement.
“15.” Underneath us, I hear a clunk and then the lights flicker. They switch from strobing orange to a strange purple. I’ve never seen them purple before.
“What’s happening, Ed?”
His voice is far away when he talks, as if he’s not facing the microphone. “Uh, we’ve had a problem. Hold.”
“A problem?” I shout. Fifteen seconds to threshold and we have a problem? This didn’t happen in over a hundred simulation runs.
The fear slams into me again. My link! We’re still mixed. The countdown has stopped but we’re still in this room miles from anyone else and we’re still in the Mix, feeling everything the other feels.
I rush the words: “Ed! We’re still in the Mix!” The Mix wasn’t designed to be a long experience. Most of the tests where the Mix went too long, the patients went a bit wacky. We’re just not designed to live in other people’s heads.
“Ya. Ya. I know.” The words are spread out and I can tell he’s focused elsewhere.
“You know? Then shut it down.”
“Then open the door and let me out. Scrub the launch. Fix your crap, and we’ll do it again.” I glance at the clock projected on the inside of my faceplate. One minute and six seconds have passed since Mix point. “We’re past a minute.”
Another voice, deep and raspy, responds, “That’s a negative.”
“Who the hell is that?” I know who it is, and I hate him. He’s not a commander. There is zero military involvement in this project. He’s just the mission lead.
“It’s Trent. You know who it is. And no, we’re not scrubbing this. It’s a software glitch, and Ed and his team almost have it fixed.”
“We’re at a minute and twenty in the Mix. This can’t be healthy.”
“No.” His voice is irritated. He hates me. Always did. He wanted to be the first to go but he failed on the Mix simulations. Freaked out like a little girl. I was next in line.
“Why?” I shout back.
“You know why,” he says.
I do. “My link.”
“They’re tough to come by. She’s the best one yet,” Trent says. There was a note of victory in his voice. I shouldn’t have conceded anything to him. Jackass.
Ed returns to the mic. “It’s a memory-dump issue. A quick change. We’re recording everything, the Mix included. We just didn’t anticipate that much data. You two overloaded it. System hit capacity and went into a loop. We’ll open up the limit.” The words came out in a rush. “Just remember, don’t talk to her.”
There was no response at first, and then Ed says, “Uh. Another minute.”
“Two?!” I yell. I’m fuming. Those idiots.
“It’s not their fault,” a voice says. I don’t recognize it. It’s my link. She’s spoken. She’s not supposed to speak to me. I ignore her. Maybe it was a slip-up. Maybe it was an accident.
The link talks again. “It wasn’t a slip-up. I meant to talk.”
I lock my knees, willing myself not to turn and look at her. I say, “Then stop.”
Trent’s voice comes through. “We can’t stop. I just told you that.”
Copyright © 2017 by J. Daniel Batt