John gone, p.15
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       John Gone, p.15

           Michael Kayatta
 

  June 3rd, 1972:

  The elevator slowed to a stop, decelerating so smoothly that Felix didn’t realize the ride was over until its large curved doors slid open before him. Karen stood up from her chair and offered a hand to him.

  “We’re here. Are you ready?” she asked.

  “If one can ever be,” he answered, accepting her hand and standing to his feet.

  Felix peered out of the elevator to the massive room beyond. He tried to think of a comparable space, a shopping mall lobby, perhaps?

  Hundreds of people buzzed throughout the room, each carrying a clipboard or file folder toward an unseen destination. The clockwork of their motion was staggering, and Felix struggled to determine from where they started and ended, finding neither. The room was in a state of perpetual motion, and none of its inhabitants paused for even a moment to eye the facility’s new addition: the tall, gangly man in glasses stepping awestruck from a giant elevator.

  “Welcome to the hub,” Karen said, watching his reaction with glee.

  “That’s a good name for it,” Felix replied. “Though the term ‘beehive’ comes to mind equally fast. How does anyone get any work done? I see no tables, no equipment, no science being done at all.”

  “The labs are private. This is more of a bureaucratic station, a place for the Red and Blue Badges. And before you ask ... ” Karen pulled a lanyard from beneath her coat and held the solid blue card it supported toward Felix.

  He took the card by its edge and examined it. The glossy plastic was completely blue. There were no markings, lettering, nor images present. “I’m failing to ascertain the purpose of such an indistinct square of plastic,” he said.

  “The information it contains is invisible to the eye. A special light is needed to see it. It aides in confidentiality.”

  “And the difference between the red and the blue?”

  “It’s a distinction of responsibility, job tasks, and importance.”

  “And which is superior? The red or the blue?”

  Karen grinned wryly. “I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.” She placed the blue badge and lanyard back beneath her coat.

  “Ah, Karen!” a voice called from the crowd ahead of them. A gruff-looking man was walking toward her and Felix. The Red and Blue Badges parted as water from his path, allowing him quick access to the elevator doors.

  “Dr. Castler,” Karen said in a professional tone. She turned to face the man as he approached. “Let me introduce you to Felix Kala, quantum biologist. Mr. Kala, this is Dr. Castler.”

  “Doctor, actually,” Felix grumbled.

  “Yes?” Castler replied.

  “No, I meant I’m--”

  Castler reached for Felix’s hand and shook it heartily. “A pleasure,” he said. Castler failed to make eye contact, seemingly distracted by something across the room. “Karen will show you the ropes from here.” The man departed as quickly as he’d appeared.

  “Who was that?” Felix asked.

  “That was the overseer,” Karen answered. “He’s in charge of everything at this location.”

  “You mean there are more of these?”

  “Let’s continue the tour, shall we?”

  Karen lightly placed her hand on the small of Felix’s back and guided him in a walk around the perimeter of the large room.

  Felix looked at the wall beside them as they traveled. Its tall, curved steel supported no art or special design, just one large imposing door after another. Only two meters separated each door from its neighbors, and all were closed with no marking to suggest what rested behind them. Felix counted them as he passed.

  One, two, three, four, five--

  “There isn’t much to say about the hub,” Karen explained as they moved, “as it fails to concern you or your work. As a researcher, you’re not encouraged to spend time here, though you’re not prohibited from doing so.”

  Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen--

  “We understand that there will be times when you need to look at something other than the walls of your lab, though you’ll soon find that the atmosphere and décor of the hub is not substantially antithetic enough to invoke any sort of significant difference to your mental health.”

  Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two--

  “If you ever feel truly claustrophobic, we have an area of the facility designed specifically to aid you.”

  Felix paused his count. “Oh?” he said. “Is there a field or sandy beachfront hiding in one of these back rooms?”

  “More like a series of experimental injections,” she answered.

  Felix thought about that for a moment. “Is there a suggestion box around here? I’d be much more in favor of my idea.” He looked behind him and quickly caught up with his count. They’d passed forty-seven doors during their walk, having not even completed one forth of the total wall.

  “We’ll be at your lab soon,” Karen said.

  “Wait,” Felix replied, stopping in place. He reached out for Karen’s shoulder and touched it.

  She paused and looked back to him. He was facing the wall when she looked. “Yes?”

  “There’s no door here,” he said.

  “Is that so astounding?”

  “It just seems odd. The room is patterned precisely except for this particular section of the wall. In fact ... ”

  Felix stepped back and held his arms out wide, guessing the distance. “In fact, it seems like the exact amount of space that the other doors occupy.”

  “Not everything is symmetrical in--”

  “Wait, look over there,” Felix interrupted. He ran ahead twenty-one doors before Karen could catch up, and halted at another empty space in the wall.

  “It’s the same size as the last,” he observed. “Is that odd to you?”

  “No,” Karen answered sternly. “I don’t know about you, but my background is in the applied sciences, not architecture and interior design. It’s just a wall, Felix. Can we move on please?”

  Felix walked toward the blank space on the wall and lightly knocked on the metal with his fist. It chimed at his touch as expected. “Sure,” he answered her. “I’m sorry. Please continue.”

  “Thank you,” she said brusquely. “I’m sure you’ll find much of interest in your lab and dormitory. Follow me and I’ll show you.”

  Felix followed Karen quietly, forgetting about the doors lining the wall of the hub. It wasn’t long before they reached their destination.

  “Take note of our position relative to the room,” Karen told Felix. “As you’ve seen, the doors are not numbered or marked. You’ll need to remember precisely where the entrance to your lab is if you wish to venture out into the hub during the day and find your way back.”

  Felix looked out across the room to its single elevator. It was located 134 degrees west of his position if his back was directly against the center of the doorway.

  “Done,” he said.

  “Good.”

  Karen approached the door. It shook as she stepped closer and raised open, revealing its thickness and design to Felix’s curious eyes. He quickly estimated the width of the metal composing it. That’s at least a meter, he thought.

  “Steel?” he asked.

  “A titanium alloy,” she answered.

  “Are you trying to keep people in or out of here?” he asked as they walked through the opening.

  “It’s just a security measure,” she answered plainly.

  “You don’t say,” he said, looking up at corridor they’d entered.

  Stretching out for more than half a mile in front of them was a large cavernous hallway leading to another metal door down the way. The sides and top of the path were uncovered stone, a large cylindrical hole cut roughly through the Earth. Except for a few construction lights and some odd looking plastic-covered wiring, the pathway was a cave, plain and simple.

  “I know!” Felix said. “You people drilled all the way underground, building this massively expensive complex as yo
u went, only to run out of budget to finish this hallway at the last moment.”

  Karen giggled. “All of the hallways look like this. We feel that having a solid conductive surface running through the entire facility is unsafe considering much of the work going on in the labs.”

  The large door at the entrance slammed closed behind them. The noise startled Felix.

  “Come on,” Karen said warmly.

  He followed the woman down the path, circling the tunnel’s stones with his eyes as they walked. The lights in the hallway had brightened as the door closed, washing the area with an eerie dull yellow glow and bringing with it a vacuum silence. He felt the need to speak to abate it.

  “And what exactly is going on in these other labs that could cause your company to electrically isolate each lab space?” he asked.

  Karen remained silent. He knew he wasn’t going to get much information from her. That’s alright, he thought, I’ve got years to find the answers. Four long, long years, he thought, shuddering at the words in his head. Just remember the pay out, Felix.

  “Generically, I can understand your reservations about full metal paneling when dealing with large quantities of dangerous energy,” he said aloud, “but, honestly, maybe some fashionable nonconductive wood paneling in here would do some good? It’s downright creepy in here with all of this ... ” He paused and looked above him. “ ... stone and rock. That’s one more free for the suggestion box if you ever find it.”

  “The whole facility is laid out like this,” Karen told him. “You already saw the hub; we call these the spokes. The whole place is like a bike wheel without the tire. Each door leading out of the hub connects to a tunnel like this one, and a lab behind that. You’re only cleared to enter this one, by the way.”

  Karen and Felix approached the door at the end of the tunnel. It was identical to the one they’d just entered except for a small porthole window at what would be eye-level for an average man. Felix had to lean down significantly to look through it. Before he could see what was awaiting them on the other side, the door rushed open past his face.

  “How do you keep opening these doors?” Felix asked, turning toward Karen with interest.

  “There’s a chip implanted in my skin.”

  “Your skin? Did I hear that correctly?”

  “Yes. It transmits my security clearance to the doors I’m allowed to open. It’s much safer than a key or card, which could be easily lost or stolen,” she explained.

  “And if someone was to steal your skin, I doubt your priorities would include the little garage door opener that was inside of it. I am, however, curious as to what happens when you or this company chooses to terminate your employment,” he said. “Are these people comfortable with allowing you permanent clearance? And please don’t tell me they’d extract it surgically.”

  “If there was a reason for my clearance to raise or lower,” she said, “then they would update my chip remotely.”

  “But how is that possible?” Felix asked.

  “Through a network of computers run by the facility that have the ability to transmit and receive data packets wirelessly,” she said matter-of-factly.

  “Amazing,” Felix responded genuinely, lifting her arm and looking at it closely. He saw nothing out of the norm.

  Karen playfully jerked her arm away from Felix’s curious grasp. “Each lab is set up to interact with the network. I’m sure learning it won’t be a great difficulty for you,” she said.

  “I hope not,” Felix replied. He took a moment to consider the implications of networked data transferral. Fascinating.

  Felix raised his eyes to the space before him and gazed into the room in which he was to live and work for the next four years.

  “Well?” Karen asked. “Is it what you expected?”

  “No, but that’s not to imply my dismay,” he replied.

  The room was well furnished, with a couch and a large, blue, comfortable-looking chair in its far side. Three tables surrounded by stools were at its back.

  Amazingly intricate paintings of framed and curtained windows lined the walls, each with a different scene beyond the glass. One showed a lush tropical rainforest with a friendly jaguar stretching across a tall branch. Another showed what appeared to be a middle-class neighborhood in December. Snowflakes were falling lightly to the grass and someone had built a funny-looking man from them with a carrot for a nose.

  Twelve of these complex window paintings adorned the room, and Felix decided to leave examining them in depth for later, during those times when he would inevitably feel the sting of boring confinement.

  “Interesting decorations,” Felix remarked.

  “Their purpose shouldn’t be difficult for you to ascertain. We are underground, after all.”

  “You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”

  “Not me,” she said, almost defensively.

  Felix left Karen’s side and sat in the large black chair near the couch. It faced back toward the entrance. He noticed two small wooden doors along the same wall. He pointed randomly at the left one and asked, “Bedroom?”

  Karen shook her head no and pointed to the right.

  “Bathroom?” Kala asked.

  “In the bedroom,” Karen answered.

  “Then what’s over there?” he asked.

  “Why don’t you try the scientific method here?” she suggested. “You’ve already constructed your hypothesis; why not test it with an experiment?”

  Felix peered at her quizzically.

  “In other words, get off your ass and go look for yourself.”

  Felix stood from the chair and walked toward the left door. “Some host you are,” he mumbled.

  Karen giggled and followed him.

  Felix opened the plain-looking door in front of him. “Impressive,” he said at its contents.

  “I’m sure you’re going to hate it all before long,” she said.

  Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of foil-wrapped pre-made food packages were shelved and racked before him. The egg-shaped room bowed three meters deep with, as Felix had counted, twenty-seven horizontal shelves. A tiny stepstool stood at the base of the wall.

  “This is enough sustenance for a lifetime, maybe two,” Felix said. “I couldn’t consume this much food in four years even if I was foolish enough to attempt it.” He read the labels on some of the packages, trying to get a sense for the variety, or lack thereof, awaiting his future meals.

  “We don’t like making shipments from the outside,” Karen explained. “As you can imagine, construction of this facility was already difficult enough to carve out without unwanted detection. Meals Ready to Eat are extremely lightweight with an extraordinary shelf life. And so, unsurprisingly, the company decided to bring them in all at once. You’ll find that, if you stop and think about things long enough before asking questions, there’s usually an extremely practical and logical answer to be found. There’s a reason for everything the company does here. Everything.”

  Felix noticed a slight change in tone and cadence as she finished the statement. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if she was trying to tell him something. Probably not, he decided quickly.

  “You’ll find the water store below,” Karen continued quickly. She gestured toward a wide metal door seated in the center of the floor. There was a small, knotted yellow rope attached to it. Felix pulled the rope toward him and looked down beneath the hatch.

  “Ah, my own swimming pool,” he commented. “How thoughtful of you. And such a lovely location.”

  The water beneath him pooled up to the brim of the small reservoir. It sparkled a faint green glow.

  “I wouldn’t recommend diving in there. That’d likely contaminate your drinking supply,” Karen said.

  “Drinking supply?” Felix replied. “Why is it glowing?”

  “We’ve bred a special sub-species dinoflagellate which inhabits the water,” she explained. “This colony is already into the hundreds of thous
ands. They keep the water hyper-oxygenated, and interestingly, chilled.”

  Felix touched the surface of the water with the tip of his finger. It was cold to his touch. “And they’re safe to drink?” he asked.

  “Not only are they safe to drink,” she explained smugly, “they’re actually highly beneficial to your physical well-being. Imbibing them will provide your brain with a heightened level of oxygen and a regulated temperature balance. They also provide aid in digestion and maintenance of your telomeres.”

  “Maintenance of my telomeres? You surely aren’t implying--”

  “Yes,” she answered. “They slow their shrinking.”

  “Impossible,” Felix responded.

  “You’ll physically age less quickly while drinking from this culture,” she said.

  He looked toward Karen and ran his eyes quickly over her face and body. While beautiful, he now wondered if a wrinkled crone was lurking just beneath the surface.

  “How old are you?” he asked suspiciously.

  “Seventy-six,” she answered.

  Felix’s eyes bulged.

  Karen laughed. “I’m only kidding. It isn’t as drastic as all that. Think about it like this; you’re giving us four years of your life. When you leave here, you won’t have actually lost them from your aggregate lifespan. Maybe two point five at most.”

  “I’m not sure whether I should be impressed or horrified,” Felix said, closing the hatch. He turned and left the room. Karen followed him to the workroom.

  “There is something I still fail to understand,” Felix said.

  “Ask me anything.”

  “What am I working on and what am I working on it with?”

  “This is your station,” she answered, pointing him toward three long empty tables in the main room.

  “I saw these before,” he told her, “but unless I’m to be working on the observation of furniture mating habits across an extended timeline, I’ll need a bit more equipment.”

  “This is a good time to explain how the system is going to work while you’re here,” Karen said, sitting on a black stool by one of the tables. “One of my functions here is to oversee your progress. As part of that, I’ll be the liaison between your work and the company. You get to tell me what you need, whether that’s test tubes or tiger testicles, and in most cases, I’ll have it for you by the following day. Each morning at 8:00 A.M. I’ll bring you the device and your supplies, and each evening at 7:00 P.M. I’ll be back to pick up the device for the night.”

  “And what device is that?” Felix asked.

  “Your project,” she said, slapping the large manila folder she’d been carrying under her arm onto the table. “The Diaspora.”

  She opened the cover of the folder, revealing a blue and white schematic paper-clipped to the inside flap. The paper showed a small device at a 1:1 scale. It looked like a wristwatch. A magnified section detailing its face appeared in the lower right-hand corner of the page.

  Felix bent down over the schematic and peered closely into the magnified section. It looked exactly as any watch face should, three hands seated on a rod over a basic metallic-patterned backing.

  “I’m not quite daft enough to imagine this is simply for telling time, so perhaps you’ll enlighten me; what am I looking at here?” he asked.

  “The product of countless years of work,” she answered. “But it’s still not finished.”

  “Well, tell me what it’s supposed to do and maybe I can fix it.”

  “Oh, it already works quite well,” Karen explained. “What we need you to do is figure out how to power it.”

  “I’ve just had a divine flash of scientific inspiration,” Felix said. “What we need is one of those little dime-shaped batteries you get at the mall.”

  Karen raised her right eyebrow high above her left.

  “We can throw it right in the back. The tricky part is remembering which side is positive and which is negative. I suppose there’s that little dash on one end to--.”

  “If the Felix Kala Comedy Hour is over, I’ll continue,” she stated impatiently.

  “Please,” Felix replied quietly, nodding toward her.

  “The Diaspora is a quantum transporter,” she said. She looked coyly toward Felix and watched his mind ignite in response to her statement. “No more jokes?” she asked, smiling.

  Felix remained still and stunned, extrapolating and processing the possibilities of such a device.

  “The process is there, but we have no way to power it,” she continued. “Every proof we have of the device’s functionality is on paper.”

  Felix raised his hand slightly as if in class. “May I?” he asked.

  Karen nodded.

  “If what you’re defining as quantum transportation is similar to my own understanding of the, let’s face it, hypothetical process, then the power you require to achieve such an event is astronomical. You’d need ... ” Felix paced his eyes left and right, performing rough calculations in his head. “I don’t know, ten bolts of lightning, three nuclear power plants strung together like Christmas lights; I don’t know. I just can’t even conceive of--”

  “You either need a tremendous amount of energy,” Karen interjected, “or the right type of it.”

  Felix froze. “You read my second-year dissertation.”

  “I did,” she answered.

  Felix brought his right hand to his heart and spoke half-jokingly, half-sincerely. “I’m touched.”

  “It was truly remarkable,” Karen said with more ardor than she probably intended. Her cheeks reddened.

  “And the only thing I ever did in school that got me something less than an ‘A’,” he muttered.

  “But doesn’t that just cement that you were on to something big?” she asked excitedly. “How can you expect someone else to understand something that you were the first to consider? It must be a truly amazing feeling.”

  Felix looked confused. “Honestly, I haven’t thought about that paper since I wrote it. I was always told that to pursue the theory would be a waste of my efforts, so I stopped, then I got into Curriculum B, then I ended up here.”

  “That theory is what makes quantum transportation possible,” she said. “Dr. Lawrence had a similar idea at the start of his project. That’s why he made the device into a wristwatch, a form perfectly suited to conduct the body’s energy.”

  “Who is Dr. Lawrence?” Felix asked.

  “He, um,” she said, audibly losing the excitement in her voice. “He was the one who pioneered quantum transportation. He invented the device.”

  “Then I would very much like to speak with him if it’s his project I’ll be attempting to complete,” Felix said.

  “That will be impossible,” Karen said sternly.

  “Alright,” Felix replied with thrift. Something about the tone of her response informed him that either arguing or joking about this topic would lead nowhere but trouble. “So where is this device?” he asked instead.

  “I’ll be bringing it to you in the morning,” she answered. Something in Karen’s voice had become deliberately colder, and Felix ran through the last few sentences they’d spoken at one another in an attempt to discover the culprit.

  “One more thing,” she continued, “and then I’ll leave you to become acclimated to your new environment.”

  Karen walked from the room to the bedroom area swiftly. She soon returned carrying a small crate.

  “And what, pray tell, is in that crate? I’m allergic to cats, you know,” Felix said.

  “It’s not a cat.” Karen placed the crate down onto the table. Her hands reached inside and reappeared a moment later holding a small tortoise.

  “Geochelone nigra, if I’m not mistaken?” Felix asked, keeping his distance from it.

  “Very good,” Karen replied. “We’ve been calling her Isabela, from the island in the Galápagos that she came from.”

  “Isabela? That’s a terrible name for a boy,” he said.

&nbs
p; “A boy?” Karen repeated, flipping the tortoise upside-down and examining it. “How can you tell? It needs to grow another ten years at least before anyone should be able to determine gender.” She spun the tortoise back around and continued her examination.

  “Trust me, that’s a male,” Felix said. “Now what is it doing here?”

  “It’s a requirement.”

  “Having a tortoise is a requirement?”

  “We call them ‘companion animals.’”

  “Oh, good grief.”

  “Our studies have shown--”

  “Alright, just leave it on the floor if you must.”

  Karen lightly placed the tortoise on the ground. It craned its head upward at Felix and made an odd sound somewhere between a cat’s meow and a bray one might expect from a dinosaur.

  “What was that?” Felix exclaimed.

  “Isabela has a few quirks,” she replied. “She, sorry, he came from another lab. He’s been the subject of some testing.”

  “It won’t exhibit any dangerous tendencies, I hope,” Felix said, taking a step back from the small animal.

  “No, no,” Karen replied. “We’re quite careful of that.”

  “Last I checked, you people didn’t even get its gender right.”

  “An aberration, I assure you.”

  “So what other little quirks can I expect?”

  Karen shrugged. Isabela stood on its hind legs and took a step toward Karen before immediately losing its balance and falling backward onto its shell. Felix raised his eyebrows at Karen.

  “You’ll be fine,” she assured him.

  “He’ll need a better name. I don’t want him growing up thinking he’s a lesbian when the girl tortoises start to flirt.”

  Karen laughed. “Feel free. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.” She turned and walked to the door. It rushed open at her approach.

  “Karen,” Felix called.

  She stopped and turned back to him. “Yes?”

  “Do you have a boyfriend?”

  She looked puzzled. “That’s an odd question,” she said.

  Felix shrugged at her.

  “I’ll see you at 8:00,” she answered. Karen turned and left the room. The door slid down closed behind her, impacting the ground below with a loud thud. Felix looked around at his new home.

  “Four years, huh?” he said to the tortoise, now spinning slowly on its back like a weighted top. He reached down and stopped it before flipping it back onto its feet. It made an odd cooing sound.

  “I’ll take that as a thank you,” Felix said. “Four years is a long time. Judging by your size, you can’t have been down here for more than two at most, and you’re already going crazy. You fail to inspire much of hope for my future sanity.”

  Felix walked over to the big blue chair in what he’d just decided to be the living room. The tortoise followed near his feet like a dog.

  Felix sat on the recliner’s pillowy bottom cushion and stretched out his legs beneath him. The tortoise pushed its front feet against his ankle until he bent down and lifted the animal to his lap.

  “What do you think, my little oviparous friend?” he asked. “Worth it?” The tortoise turned its head to the side and stared at Felix curiously.

  “I just thought of a good name for you,” Felix said. He placed the tortoise down on top of his thighs and fished a black permanent marker from his left pocket.

  “I think I’ll call you ‘Calendar,’” he said, marking a thin black tally mark on the side of the tortoise’s shell.

 
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