John gone, p.19
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       John Gone, p.19

           Michael Kayatta
 

  April 1st, 1974:

  It had been almost two years since Felix had begun his work on the Diaspora. Progress had been gradual, but steady. Karen never mentioned anything about the speed of his progress, and so Felix had maintained his pace, working as quickly and as well as he knew how in the relatively short time he was allowed with the subject of his research, the large enigmatic wristwatch intended to transport a man from one place to the next.

  Felix had tried to explain to Karen that he wanted more time with it, that nights of potentially break-through research were often wasted when he was interrupted mid-thought by her consistently punctual 7:00 P.M. arrival.

  Like the end of a high school pop-quiz, Felix could almost hear Karen say “Pencils down!” when she visited him in the evenings, abruptly halting his day’s progress to take the device from his laboratory. The visits had been so unvarying each day that, eventually, Felix’s internal clock had become wound to her precision. Each morning at 8:00 and each evening at 7:00, he could nearly sense her presence five minutes prior to her arrival, saddling his mind with a constant, looming sensation of premonition.

  But despite the impediment she brought with her, Felix had come to truly enjoy the few moments of time he could spend with Karen each day. Originally, he’d considered this due to the fact that she was his only real human contact. She’d been right about the hub, after all; visiting it was simultaneously boring and overwhelming. No one had time to stop and talk with him, and the mere sight of hundreds of people was an intimidating change of environment for one so often alone in his room.

  He’d recently begun to feel a more genuine attraction to Karen, a feeling that someone may have for another regardless of whether she was the last person on Earth or one of millions. She was beautiful and intelligent to be sure, but not unlike other beautiful and intelligent women he‘d met at Harvard. Perhaps it was the way she flattened her upper lip and widened her nostrils when trying to contain a laugh, or perhaps it was the fact that she could always admit when she was wrong--such an uncommon trait among intelligent people. Perhaps it was the fact that she’d been the first to remain in his life for more than a few passing months, and perhaps, Felix feared, perhaps that was only because she had to.

  He’d never in his life been good at understanding people, especially women, and Karen was no exception. Felix had tried his best to flirt with her on occasion, though his awkward efforts were usually met with an odd reaction and followed by him lamenting the attempt to Calendar later, after she’d left.

  There were, of course, those few and memorable times when she seemed as if she’d actually been warming to him. There were even those times when Felix was sure that it had been her doing the flirting: an oddly placed giggle at a bad joke, lavishing praise at the most minor of breakthroughs, and once, just once, a possible sexual innuendo veiled beneath a talk on Galápagos tortoise mating behaviors. Yet, it always seemed that at the peak of her warmth, an unpredictable chill wind would blow between them, returning her to a cold and apathetic supervisor.

  Historically, Felix had considered such amorous considerations foolish. The only reason he’d never mastered the wooing of women, he’d convinced himself, was because he’d never wanted to. Women, dating, and even sex were, to some degree, major time-wasters. The pursuit of women was nothing but a distraction from the truly important things in life--things like chromosomes, atomic orbitals, and bra-ket notations.

  Once, during his second and final year of high school, Felix had actually, to even his own surprise, been with a member of the opposite sex. The unlikely reaction had occurred primarily as a product of the female’s exuberant interest and Felix’s own lazy curiosity. A quiz bowl competition had been held an hour prior, and he’d, unsurprisingly, single-handedly decimated the opposing team in a record-shattering time.

  The female in question had been the leader of the fallen faction, and had seemingly discovered herself entranced by the young, tall, intellectually confident boy sending her and her team home empty-handed.

  The plump, golden-haired girl had followed him after the match and located him sitting outside by the back door while his ineffectual teammates claimed the small, silver-painted, poorly-sculpted trophy bust of Einstein’s head as a reward for his efforts. She’d made the proposal, provided the contraception, and imposed the will necessary to cause the coupling.

  Felix had found the affair dull, feral, and just slightly base. She’d handed him her phone number scrawled on the back of a piece of torn notebook paper when they were finished, and never heard from him.

  Thus far, Felix had been finding his experience with Karen much different than his previous, and admittedly, limited experiences with the fairer sex. Instead of hampering his work, he’d actually found his affections motivating progress.

  He woke each morning with the happy knowledge that he would soon see her again, and that perhaps that morning would be the morning in which he would finally discover the elusive secret keeping him from being with her, the secret of her cool, often cold composure. Each day, he could work with fervor on the device, hoping to share some new moment of eureka with her that evening.

  Lately, though, he’d been short on new discoveries. He was getting closer to powering the device, but had reached a point in his research that required physical tinkering, nothing as flashy or impressive as the colored cloud burst of a chemical reaction or the spontaneous transport of a small piece of organic tissue from one side of his desk to the other.

  After two years of work, he’d finally discovered a way to efficiently provide power to the quantum transportation process. Instead of wastefully flooding the device with the already limited supply of energy in a human body, he’d realized that assigning each component of the process its own conductor would increase the efficiency of power usage by over three hundred percent. Doing so meant installing hundreds of thinner than hair-thin wires throughout the center of the device. It was a process that he’d been working on for months, and one yet to be even half accomplished.

  Each wire had to be affixed while beneath an extraordinarily powerful electron microscope, using tools Felix hadn’t been previously trained to use. Allowing other, more skilled, physical engineers into the process was highly impossible, or at least that’s what Karen had told him when he inquired. And so, he was forced to both learn how to attach the wiring, then master the difficult art in a relatively short amount of time.

  Attaching wires was exactly what he was doing just then in his lab, with a familiar feeling of Karen’s nearby presence looming over the work. It was almost 7:00 P.M. It must be, he thought.

  Felix carefully moved his hand from underneath the microscope and wiped a bead of sweat from his eyelid beneath his glasses. He fluttered his eyelashes up and down rapidly, trying to clear his vision from a moisture-induced blurriness that had overcome it.

  Just one more wire, he thought. Let me get one more attached before--

  The loud door slid vertically open and the familiar clopping of Karen’s shoes paced into the room in front of him.

  “It’s time, Felix,” she said.

  “Almost done.”

  “It’s seven o’clock.”

  “Stop me now, and you’ll cost me an hour of work starting on this again in the morning.”

  “Alright,” she said.

  After a quiet moment of focus on the intricate wire clenched between the jaws of his precision clamps, he processed her answer. “What?” he suddenly asked.

  “I said alright,” she repeated, sitting in the blue chair across the room. “Don’t get used to it, though,” she warned. “This is a special occasion. It’s Castler’s birthday and all the other Badges are celebrating in the terrarium. No one’s paying attention tonight. We can get away with a few extra minutes.”

  Felix carefully drew a wire taut against the inner-rim of the watch’s face and fixed it there temporarily while he switched tools.

  “Terrarium?” he asked.

  “Ye
s,” she replied. “It’s the only place down here with actual plants. It doesn’t seem like something you’d miss, but after awhile, you miss the strangest things. I heard there used to be tons of plants down here, you know, for the oxygen.”

  “Don’t you go to the surface? I met you there. Remember?”

  “Only for new scientists, which is rare. And even then, it’s a desert, man. You saw it.”

  Karen pulled the small wooden handle on the side of her chair, causing its footstool extension to spring out from beneath her feet. She stretched her legs on top of it and closed her eyes. “No plants down here anymore, though. Now they have some machine processing our air for us so they don’t have to ‘expose us to the unnecessary risks of superfluous biological contact,’” she said in an exaggerated, mannish voice. She laughed at herself.

  “Have you been drinking?” Felix asked, remaining focused on his work.

  “Huh?” Karen replied. “Why would you say that?”

  “You seem different than usual,” Felix said. “Bad jokes, impressions, leniency. All could point to minor inebriation. And did you call me ‘man’ a second ago?”

  “Well, they’re drinking at the party, which I know since I went into the wine store where there was only one bottle left.”

  “And now there are no bottles left?” Felix asked.

  “Stupid party,” Karen said.

  “Why weren’t you invited?”

  “Someone had to tend to the rounds. I guess I’m the only one capable.”

  Felix finished attaching the last wire and began slowly reassembling the watch’s casing.

  “Normally, I wouldn’t care,” she continued. “It’s just so boring down here sometimes, you know?”

  “Yes, I’ve noticed,” Felix replied.

  She laughed. “It’s like, the one time they actually do something ... whatever. Anyway, sorry for whining. What’s new with you?”

  “Um, same old, same old,” he replied dryly. Felix finished closing the watch’s casing and carefully placed it into the metal container that he always returned it to before handing it over to Karen for the night. He lifted the box from the table and brought it to the couch across from her.

  Calendar, who’d grown considerably in two years, was lying between them on the floor, asleep. Felix sat on the couch and rested his feet on top of the tortoise’s heavily tally-marked shell.

  Karen opened her eyes as Felix approached. She stood from the chair, walked over to Calendar, and lightly began petted his resting head.

  “He’s getting big,” she said.

  “Yes. I worry about him.”

  “Why?”

  “His species don’t reach peak size until approximately forty years of age. He’s halfway grown already, but can’t be more than four. Whatever it is that you people were doing to him--”

  Karen stood and walked to the couch angrily. “Hey! I didn’t do anything to him or to anybody else, okay? I just work here. Everything that happens here isn’t on my personal shoulders.”

  “Oh, I apologize for the phrasing,” Felix said. “I didn’t mean to imply ... ”

  Karen’s eyes saddened at his non-combative response. “No, I’m sorry,” she said, sitting next to him on the couch. Felix handed her the metal box with the watch inside and she spun it round in her hands as she spoke.

  “Sometimes this place can make you kind of crazy,” she said. “Who’d have thought being trapped in a box with 312 other people could make you feel so ... alone.”

  “You’re not actually alone though,” Felix said, carefully. “I’m here for you.”

  “I like you, Felix,” she said. “I like you a lot. But you’re not here for me.”

  “Well,” he replied, now murmuring at a lower volume, “I could be.”

  “No, Felix, you couldn’t,” she said, leaning against him. She put her head on the back cushion of the couch instead of his shoulder. “You don’t understand this place.”

  “Is there someone else?” he asked meekly.

  “Sort of,” she said absently. “But he’s not here anymore.”

  “Not here?”

  “Well, he’s here, just, well, it’s complicated.”

  “It isn’t that Castler guy, is it?”

  “Oh, God, no,” she said, almost choking on a laugh. “But, it’s not funny,” she quickly continued, becoming instantly serious again.

  “Have I met him?” Felix asked. “Maybe in the hub?”

  “No,” she responded. Then, she began to cry.

  Felix glanced at her face, fast turning wet and red. He sat still and watched her sob, completely unsure of how to proceed. It was just so sudden. He could hug her, but what if that made things worse? What if she threw his arm off of her in a fit? He could verbally console her, but what if that made her feel as though he truly didn’t understand her, making them even more distant by result?

  Locked by fear and indecision, Felix could only remain quiet, and the silence that resulted was terrible. Soon, she stopped crying and stood from the couch.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling up the rest of her tears. “That was unprofessional of me. Good night.” She left through the door, and it slid closed with a thud behind her, locking itself for the evening.

  Felix stood and walked to the door. Leaning down, he peered through its port glass at Karen. She was walking away from his lab quickly, almost running, with the small metal box containing the watch curled in her left hand. He sighed as she shrank from sight.

  He turned away from the window and found Calendar looking up at him from near his feet.

  “Yeah? Well, what would you have done?” he asked the animal. Calendar stood silent.

  Felix walked to his blue chair and sat on it in reverse, his knees burying deep between the back and bottom cushion as his arms folded around its back. He looked at the wall now in front of him. One of the twelve painted windows decorating his laboratory was there. It was the one he looked into least often, partially due to its placement and partially because it was the picture he connected with least.

  Beyond the painted frame of the window was the outside of an airport on a seemingly normal, sunny afternoon. There was no strange biome depicted featuring some exotic animal or plant to catch your attention like the other windows, nor was an extrinsic climate portrayed, like a storm made of rain, snow, or sand. It was simply the front exit of an airport and the image of a man returning home, bags in hand, from what looked to have been a business trip. There was a woman there, too, running to the man with one arm open for embrace and the other carrying a small toddler equally excited for the pending reunion. It was a simple scene, the reuniting of a family long apart.

  Felix wondered what his own return from this “business trip” would entail. He wondered who would be waiting for him on the surface with open arms, waiting to kiss and hug him back into a normal life. He, of course, already knew the answer. There was no one waiting for him on the surface. No wife, child, nor family to speak of. No one to cry and to thank God that he wasn’t actually dead for all those years; no one with whom to share this vast fortune he was earning by being here. There were only two Felix cared about now, and both were underground with him: Karen and his tally-marked tortoise.

  “It’s not real, Calendar, so stop fretting over it,” he said. “Just a painting on the wall, nothing more.”

  Felix dismounted the chair and walked to the computer terminal at his desk. His pet followed him happily and lay next to his feet as he sat. Felix powered on the computer’s monitor and stared into the white text prompt blinking in the upper-left corner of his otherwise black screen.

  “Let us see if we can find this mysterious man to whom Karen was referring,” he said down at Calendar. The tortoise produced a happy yip and spun around in a quick circle before settling again.

  Felix punched a flurry of letters and numbers into his keyboard and was soon presented with a list of the facility’s security camera archives. He’d known nothing ab
out networked computer systems when he’d arrived, yet only two years later had been able to break through the most technologically advanced security measures available for the facility to install. This relative ease of entry onto its internal network was probably the exact reason, Felix thought, that only the hub was video surveilled.

  “Let’s see,” Felix said under his breath, “it would have to be recent, but maybe not since I arrived.”

  Felix scrolled through the archives until coming across the months in 1970. “As good a place to start as any,” he mumbled.

  Felix began to fast-forward through the footage, watching month after month until, an hour later, the year was exhausted.

  He’d seen Karen often enough in the videos, though never speaking with anyone out of the ordinary. The likelihood of randomly stumbling across an answer in the hub archives was unlikely at best, but Felix was stubborn and had nothing better to do with the next few hours of night.

  By 11:00 he’d sifted through a few more years of the company’s archival footage, starting with 1969, then moving to 1971. Finding nothing of interest in either, he checked farther back to the months in 1968, 1967, 1966, 1965 and finally 1964 where he found no trace of Karen at all.

  At least I know when she started working here. At least that’s something, he thought. Felix let out an audible sigh that woke Calendar from his nap. It's meaningless, he admitted.

  Defeated, but still awake, Felix scrolled back to the earliest year available on the network: 1961. He chose the first month in the list and yawned as he watched recorded footage of company employees milling about the hub. The pixilation of the footage had increased while the frame rate had dropped, but other than the video quality, not much had changed in the twenty years since the facility had opened. Or at least, Felix considered, since the cameras had been installed.

  There were fewer people than he was now accustomed to, but those who were there still wore the same red and blue badges over their long white lab coats as they did now. Like clockwork, at the 8:00 A.M. mark, a small army of Blue Badges entered the doors around the perimeter. He scrubbed forward and watched them all reenter the same corridors at 7:00 P.M. He played the footage forward and backward over and over again by dragging his cursor along the bottom timeline. The effect was entertaining, like little mechanical birds in a cuckoo clock, he thought.

  When his eyelids grew heavy, Felix knew it was time to abort his unfruitful endeavor and finally get some sleep. He had a long day of attaching small wires to small conductors, and a morning saturated with what Felix knew would be an awkward conversation with a newly sober Karen.

  As he moved his cursor to close the computer’s connection to the network, Felix noticed something so odd that it snapped him awake. His spine straightened and his eyelids shot open wide as he leaned in toward the screen to examine the hub’s walls. From the four angles present in the footage, he could see the entire surface of the room’s curved wall. One hundred and seventy-two doors were present, twelve more than stood presently.

  Felix rifled through the subsequent months sequentially until coming across the first instance of a door’s disappearance in the April of 1963. He moved the slider through the thirty days of linked video stream until finding the exact moment of the door’s disappearance.

  What in the world?

  Felix monitored the time stamp as he slid between the door’s existence and disappearance. Footage had been removed between 7:15 P.M. and 7:45 A.M. The transition was seamless, too, something no one would have noticed who wasn’t looking for it. At 7:15, the “1” in the timestamp simply changed to a “4,” and one of the 172 doors on the wall changed to flat concrete like magic. It was as if the door’s removal had never happened.

  Felix clicked out of the year and began to progress through the recorded timeline, observing each of the twelve disappearances individually. He found each event the same: at 7:15 P.M. the door was there, and at 7:45 A.M. it wasn’t. There was never more than one disappearance per year, and not all years had one.

  Felix found the twelfth vanishing door in 1970 on Christmas Day. He was surprised to see Karen as the Blue Badge entering and exiting it each day before the disappearance, presumably taking care of the laboratory beyond it. When the timestamp changed to 7:45 the next morning, Karen was attending to a different laboratory as if the other had never existed.

  Felix shut off the computer monitor and leaned back in his chair. He arched his neck toward the ceiling and shut his eyes. He sat like that, thinking and thinking, piecing and placing the data together, waiting for the answer to come to him. The contract, the job, the money, Dr. Lawrence, the design of the spokes, the doors, the food and water store, Karen’s tears, and what she said about that other man: “Well, he’s here, just, well, it’s complicated.” There had to be a connection. What’s the narrative?

  He sat there, eyes closed, and he thought, and he thought, until an answer that accommodated all of the evidence finally arrived. His eyes shot open as the truth of things came to him.

 
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