Tuesday, January 12, 2010
from a bluff overlooking a beach
He decided it was the flatness that he missed the most. When he looked at a picture of the ocean, he had it all there in front of him, and he could appreciate how nice everything was without having to worry about all the empty water that would be happy to drown him, and all the empty air that tugged on his poor, flimsy skin so he felt naked, naked, naked, even with his clothes still on him.
"Start small," Dr. Limic had told him. "Five minutes a day. Two minutes, even. Your unusual tolerance has been a lifesaver for us, literally, but it isn't normal and you have to face the possibility that it may, eventually, run out." The doctor would lean against the outside of whatever compartment or container or "future habitation environment" they were testing him against and tap the smooth walls appreciatively. "I don't know how you do it, Jack. You have no signs of stress, and you're not hiding them either. For all our machines know, you might as well be lounging next to a pool in Monte Carlo."
Jack had never been to Monte Carlo. He had never really thought about it either. The name had always sounded like something you'd call a brand of aftershave. It made him think of clean, shiny people who went around smiling all the time, and didn't do honest work for a living. Someone like himself, for instance. He pushed his nose into the folds of his smoothly shaved arms, but he didn't smell like anything now, not even soap.
"Better for the electrical readings," Dr. Limic had explained when he pasted on the sensors and receivers for the first time.
They brought him in with a few of his coworkers and some other people from the sanitation firm across town. Individuals who were used to small spaces, they said. People who have mastered the natural tendency to panic, when the luxury of space is taken away.
Jack supposed that made sense. They had spent more time than not climbing through pipes and tunnels and shafts. He couldn't remember if he had ever been troubled by the sensation of space pressed thin between himself and the inside of a maintenance tunnel. If he had, it had been a long time ago, and this was easy work. Lollipops from a blind kid.
Jack waited for the panic to catch up with him. He sat in rooms that got smaller and smaller, and then in specialized containers that looked like progressively more alien versions of a cheap sleeper car, or a single seat portion of an airplane.
"I heard they have hotels like this in Japan," one of the other subjects said. "A bed that slides out in a drawer, and a tv that sits between your feet. I heard that, sometimes, people have sex in them, but mostly it's just for sleeping. Too uncomfortable for anything else, I guess."
Jack waited patiently. He wondered if there was something wrong with him because the panic was taking so long to reappear. His fellow subjects left, one by one, most of them looking relieved, although a few of them looked ashamed about the despairing looks the scientists threw after them.
"I can't be sure this is going to work," Dr. Limic said. "We need it to work. This could be the most important scientific project that I will ever have the honor of being a part of. We're only a small element of the whole, of course, but you never know which piece will take the brunt of history when the whole structure is exposed to the world."
They put Jack in a sleek, cream-colored pod. The walls curled around him, and perfectly molded cushions held him so gently that he almost didn't feel them at all. Tubes fed him and cleaned him, and when he got tired of the sleepy warmth, he pressed a button for beautiful pictures to flash an inch in front of his face, or for music to hum straight into his ear, and he enjoyed them until he drifted off again.
"I feel like a baby," he said when he woke up long enough to remember the whole sentence.
"I'm sorry," Dr. Limic said. "It's an unavoidable side effect, I'm afraid."
"No, no. It's not like that." Jack tried to explain about the way his mind was emptying out and the wonder that kept tickling him when he thought about how much room he was going to have in there, but he kept falling asleep before he could find the right words to share the irony of the situation.
"Thank you, Jack. We're finished." Dr. Limic seemed to be having trouble holding onto his pen. It slipped and skittered off his notes and out of his hand. "We've got everything we need, thanks to you, and -- I shouldn't be telling you this because it's supposed to be confidential, but I don't see any harm in a little celebration -- we got it right, finally. We're sending the plans off to manufacturing now. In a month, they'll be ready for the ship."
"That's it?" Jack asked. He thought that nobody had heard him because they were so busy taking the pod apart from around him. When enough pieces had been marked and noted and carefully boxed away, they disconnected his tubes and lifted him into a cold wheelchair. The walls seemed a dizzying distance away. His legs went cold and weak just from looking at that endless stretch of space.
"Of course not," said Dr. Limic. "You've been an indispensable part of my work. I've arranged a nice send off for you."
Dr. Limic's idea of a nice send off was a small house that overlooked the beach. It wasn't Monte Carlo, the doctor said, but I'm sure you'll find it almost as nice. He prescribed time outdoors, gentle observation that led up to unflinching study of the far horizon. You'll feel better for it, he said. It's a matter of health.
Jack set his watch before he opened the door. He dutifully stood ten feet away from his door and looked at the line that made up the difference between the sky and the ocean. He tried to ignore the way a muscle beneath his eye twitched sometimes. He allowed himself to hunch up his shoulders, but he didn't let himself turn around, or cheat by closing his eyes for longer than he would normally blink. Once, he saw a furious light dash straight into the sky, and when he listened to the radio later, he heard Dr. Limic accepting the congratulations of a crowd.
When he had finished his time, Jack would go back inside and shut the door. He had moved a chair into a closet and lined the walls with postcards, and he liked to sit there, holding a small lamp in his lap, until the shaking faded and he could stop thinking about how it felt to have his walls taken away.