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       John Gone, p.28

           Michael Kayatta

  June 3rd, 1976:

  Felix opened his eyes and stared at the polished concrete ceiling above him without moving his body. He lay there silently in his bed, much as he had just minutes prior while still sleeping. There was no alarm by his bedside ringing him awake, nor was there any type of clock to be found in his lab at all, but Felix knew exactly what time it was: 7:45 A.M. It was the exact time he’d woken for the past eighteen months. He knew what day it was, too: Thursday, the day of his escape.

  Five minutes later, he allowed himself to move. He slid his hand from his stiff white sheets to the small table by the bed where his fingers found his glasses. He turned his legs from the mattress and sluggishly allowed himself to fall from the bed to his right. His feet made contact with the floor, met by the familiar chill of its touch. He walked across the room to his dresser and silently put on his pants, shirt, and lab coat.

  The last two years of Felix’s time with the company had passed more slowly than the first. Life in the lab without Karen had been abysmal, and the lack of sleep caused by his extracurricular work on a secondary device had made him depressive and edgy.

  As he’d expected, he’d seen Karen once or twice a month, moving in and out of her new lab or buzzing about in the hub. Per her instructions, he hadn’t spoken to her since that night two years ago when she’d left him. Resisting the urge to speak with her in person was difficult, so he’d instead resigned himself to watching her on the security footage when he was feeling desperate for some form of connection with her, no matter how minimal. Following her on the terminal was never as fulfilling as he’d hoped.

  The assignment of a new Badge to his lab had failed to cure his loneliness either. Her name was Amy, a woman whom Felix often referred to as an “all-business fatso” when speaking of her to Calendar.

  The tortoise had now grown to full size for his species’ average in a tenth of the time he should have, and the accelerated development had continued to cause Felix worry. After finishing his after-hours work, he’d often spent his nights on the floor, his back against the side wall with his tortoise happily seated beside him like a loyal hound. Felix would sit there, half asleep, half awake, and repeatedly count the tallies he’d drawn on Calendar’s shell while wishing he’d been able to spend more of his time discovering what terrible things had been done to his pet in the other labs before they’d met.

  It stood to reason, Felix had considered, that with faster aging came faster death. While he had come to appreciate Calendar’s particular set of quirks, he couldn’t help but feel that robbing a creature of its lifespan was sinister, especially one he now considered a friend.

  Felix took the black marker from his lab coat and bent down over the sleeping tortoise by the foot of his bed. He added a small black tally to the group.

  “Last one,” Felix said, waking Calendar for the morning.

  Felix stood and thought about the day ahead. Later, the hub would be cleared of all non-essential personnel, and the Diaspora would be used to transport a test subject from the lab to a set of coordinates in Darwin, Australia and back.

  If the test was successful, Felix would be congratulated and sent back to his lab for what they would tell him would be one final night before his payment and trip back to the surface. Then, after the lab corridor doors closed later that evening, the company would do whatever it was that they did to seal in their scientists. At that point, Felix would use the secondary device he’d built to escape, and the company would have no idea that he was gone. That was the plan, anyway. If the device failed to work on its first test subject, then his contract would be extended until it did, and Felix’s escape would have to wait.

  This day would mark the first, and hopefully, last live test of the device. He hadn’t been allowed to do any major testing during his four years of development. They had told him it was due to safety protocols, but Felix knew that it was because they didn’t want him flittering about on the surface with their property, possibly choosing not to return willingly to the sunless cave underneath.

  Without complete knowledge of the work done on the Diaspora by his predecessor before him, and without the time to gain it, Felix had been forced to replicate the watch’s inner workings component by component. That meant that, much to Felix’s chagrin, the new device he’d built would be subject to the same protocols and programming of its brother.

  Even the signals it sent couldn’t be stopped, though he’d at least been able to route them to his own computer terminal. It was the only other IP address he knew, and was sure to be safe when sealed away in the laboratory after tonight. Even if the company did dig it up someday, Felix would already be far away from the watch he’d built.

  The door in the main lab slid open. Amy, a rotund woman with a perpetually scrunched up nose, entered his living space.

  “Dr. Kala?” she asked loudly. “It’s 8:00.”

  “I know what time it is,” he answered, leaving the bedroom and joining her in the lab. “And I told you, ‘Mister’ is just fine.”

  “We’re waiting for you, Dr. Kala. It’s an important day today,” she said.

  “Just a moment,” he answered, walking to the food storage. Felix opened one of the many foiled packages and put its contents into a small red bowl.

  “And how’s your day been thus far, Amy?” he asked nicely, bringing the bowl back to the bedroom for Calendar.

  “What do you mean by ‘how has it been?’”

  “Never mind,” Felix said after a quiet sigh. “Let’s just go and get this over with.”

  “My thoughts exactly,” she concurred.

  Felix followed Amy through the long, dark, cavernous hallway that connected his lab to the hub. Their walk passed without conversation. Amy wasn’t much of a talker.

  Finally, the pair reached the hub, and Felix had never seen the facility so empty. He wondered where the company was storing all of the Badges normally seen milling about there. Dr. Castler, whom Felix hadn’t seen since their initial introduction four years ago, was standing in the center of the room. Two young men he didn’t recognize were standing silent with clipboards in their hands to the overseer’s right. Karen was to his left.

  Felix looked to her as he approached the group behind his new supervisor and was surprised to see her make immediate eye contact with him. It was the first time they’d looked at each other in two years. Her green eyes were wide and still, betraying a quiet sadness behind them. If there had ever been any doubt that Karen knew exactly what went on in the facility, this silent desperation belied it.

  “Felix Kala,” Dr. Castler said excitedly, shaking Felix’s hand furiously, “I’ve been following your daily reports since you began. I’m extremely excited to see what you’ve made for us.”

  Felix nodded.

  “Amy? Do you have the device?” Castler asked.

  “Yes sir!” she shouted, her loud, abrupt response jarring even Castler.

  “Good,” the man replied, forcing a smile at her.

  Amy lifted the small metal box and opened it. She removed the watch and offered it to Castler, who gestured to Felix instead of accepting it. Felix took the watch and looked to Castler for direction.

  “Karen here has volunteered to be our guinea pig today,” the man said. “Normally we would use someone a bit more ... expendable ... but since this device actually takes you outside of the facility, we need someone we can trust to bring it back!” He laughed.

  “Felix,” he continued, “if you would do the honors, please.” Castler lightly pushed Karen toward Felix by her back and lifted her right arm with his other hand. Karen continued her unwavering stare into Felix’s eyes as he approached her.

  Felix took her hand and gingerly placed the watch over her wrist. He turned her arm and latched the band beneath. The skin was as soft as he had often imagined it to be. He wondered if this would be the last time he would touch it.

  “Too tight?” he asked her quietly.

  “No,” she said.
br />   I need to focus, he thought. This needs to work.

  Felix removed his gaze from Karen’s and cleared his throat. “Yesterday I set the device to transport the subject to the coordinates I was provided with. Among the improvements I’ve made to the Diaspora is the ability to easily set the destination with the watch’s hands. No more plugging in a complicated algorithm into a computer terminal. This will allow the operator to choose locations as needed, instead of phoning back to HQ to input more numbers remotely.”

  “Very good,” Castler said, “but is there truly enough control over location data with just three hands to set?”

  “This is a good point, and leads me to my next improvement,” Felix replied. “I’ve reprogrammed the watch to bring its user into bathrooms. Yes, you lose a small amount of precision by handling things in this manner, but it also allows for finite locations to be programmed via the hands by the user.”

  “Bathrooms?” Amy said skeptically.

  “Quiet,” Castler barked at her. She shrank. “Please Felix, continue.”

  “Bathrooms make more sense than you may think. As the intention of the device’s use is not public transportation, you must remember that the sight of a quantum replacement, or ‘teleport’ as they’ll perceive it, would be quite surprising. This will also hamper any efforts of its user to remain incognito. Hence, it places them in the closest bathroom. The device observes locations based upon commonplace components of bathrooms, plumbing, sinks, toilets, pipes, etcetera. The bathroom is a place that exists almost everywhere on Earth and has the added benefit of also generally being the most private area within any location.”

  “Very astute,” Castler said.

  “I mention it now because the test subject will not arrive at your precise coordinates. She will arrive directly nearby, inside the closest bathroom,” Felix explained. “The subject appearing there, as opposed to the directed coordinates, will dictate the actual success of this test.”

  “Understood,” Castler remarked. “But what if the bathroom should be occupied?”

  “I could ask the same question about specific coordinate use as well. It isn’t as though you’ll be able to always know precisely who is nearby without a supplemental device when you choose to travel. I will, however, say this at the risk of sounding cold-hearted. This contingency actually makes the bathroom even more beneficial. What better than a private place to handle any ... unwanted witnesses.”

  “My kind of thinking!” Castler exclaimed. “So, Felix, any other changes I should know about before we begin?”

  “Nothing major,” Felix replied nonchalantly. “I’ve added a holographic communicator, a calibration protocol for acclimating the device to a first time user, and a few other minor improvements. As my mission was to simply power the device using natural energies, I didn’t spend exorbitant time on additional improvements.”

  “Understandable. This calibration protocol, though,” Castler replied, “will we need to run through it now before the test?”

  “The protocol will consist of the device taking its user farther and farther from its point of origin, recording energy usage and returning them between each displacement. Each body will produce and allocate differently, so this process is suggested prior to any consistent use by a new user. That being said, one displacement won’t be problematic. We can continue without it.”

  “Then shall we?” Castler asked.

  “Yes,” Felix answered. He looked back to Karen. She was still looking at him. He had the sudden urge to embrace her, but instead, took two steps backward.

  “Placing your thumb across the face’s glass for five seconds will force the displacement. On this model, the top includes a print scanner which will check your thumb against a remote database as failsafe before you--”

  “Jump?” Castler finished for him.

  “Sure, ‘jump,’” Felix said.

  “Did you say ‘this model’ Felix?” Castler smiled. “Getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?”

  “Oh,” Felix replied. “Yes, of course. I just assumed that this would be more of a prototype. I’m sure when you produce others they will include some different functionality and protocols.”

  “I’m sure,” Castler agreed.

  We need to get started, Felix thought. I can’t afford another slip.

  “The watch currently recognizes this facility as its point of origin. If at any time you wish to return from whence you came, simply set the hands clockwise to 12:00 and zero seconds. You’ll need to do so to come back to the facility after this test. So, without further ado; whenever you’re ready,” Felix said, crossing his hands in front of him. “Please place your thumb across the watch’s face and hold it there. The process is quite painless, I assure you. You may, however, be a bit chilly upon your arrival in Australia due to a temporary alteration of your thermic energy.”

  Karen finally shifted her attention from Felix and looked to Dr. Castler.

  “One moment,” Castler said. “Gentlemen, if you’ll please put these on.” Castler leaned down to a black duffle bag by his feet and removed four masks. Each covered the eyes and ears of its wearer.

  Castler answered Felix’s question before he could ask it. “Something I failed to mention about the build of the device we gave you. Upon its use, the watch will emit a frequency that incapacitates nearby observers. These will neutralize its effect on us.”

  Thanks for the head’s up, Felix thought. I was wondering why there had even more energy required than there should have been.

  Castler was the last to don the mask and nodded to Karen once it was in place around his head. Nervously, she placed her thumb flat against the watch’s glass. Five seconds later, a bright light shot from the face of the device. Karen looked briefly to Felix. He smirked and raised his hand shortly upward as a goodbye. It was difficult to see past the dark black tint of his mask and bright blue light surrounding her, but Felix thought he saw Karen smile. She disappeared.

  It was now 8:00 P.M., and Felix knew that the video feed in the hub had been cut fifteen minutes prior.

  This is it, he thought. This is when it happens.

  Amy had left just moments ago, and Felix was busy saying his goodbyes to Calendar.

  “Be good,” he said. “They’re probably going to stick you with some other scientist fresh from the surface.” He looked at the black tally marks he’d scrawled across the shell. “Then again, perhaps not. You do look a bit like a prison brick now,” he said, laughing.

  The laugh had started at his comment, but continued on and on, amplifying and varying as it continued. Felix crouched and rolled onto his back amidst the fit. Calendar began to lick his face, which only made Felix’s laugh louder and stronger. It was the moment it had finally hit him: At any time now, he would be free.

  Sure, it wouldn’t be the happiest of endings. He didn’t get the girl, his pet would have to stay, he didn’t get the money he’d signed up for, and there was no one up there waiting for him, but after everything he’d been through, four long terrible years in a bunker beneath the Earth, perhaps just one minute under the sun would be enough.

  “No, I didn’t get the girl,” he said to Calendar, his laughter finally abating. “But at least I found her.” He drummed lightly on Calendar’s shell. “Okay, pal, let’s get ready.”

  Felix stood and walked to the food storage where he’d hidden the device amidst the thousands of foiled food packages.

  Third shelf, four rows back, Felix recited to himself as he reached back for the bag that contained the rogue device. He found it immediately, as he had every night for the past two years. He lifted it to his face and kissed it.

  He walked back to his living area and plopped himself down in the large blue chair. Calendar walked in front of him and lay down, allowing Felix to use him as a footstool. Felix eagerly complied and stretched out his long legs atop the tortoise’s shell.

  “Yes, there will be small things I miss. But not many,” Felix said. He
closed his eyes. A minute later, his footstool suddenly moved, causing the back of Felix’s feet to crash down to the concrete below. Calendar was running toward the door.

  “What is it?” Felix asked, following closely behind. “Is it happening?” He dashed to the large metal door at the lab’s entrance and bent down to peer through the port glass. Someone in the distance was running toward his lab. Felix squinted and strained to make out the figure, but the dim light of the hallway was making it difficult.

  As the figure got closer, Felix could see one of its arms waving. The other was holding something. He thought he heard noise penetrating the glass. Was the person yelling? Felix turned his head and placed his ear flat against the door’s window. At first the sound was muddled, but moments later, as the person drew near, he was able to hear the voice. It was faint, but he could make out every word.

  “Felix! Felix!” a woman’s voice yelled. “We have to get out of here! They’re coming, Felix! They’re coming! We have to get out!”

  Felix recognized the voice immediately. He quickly turned his eyes back to the glass. He could see her easily now. It was Karen, running frantically toward his lab.

  No, no, no, he thought. Why now? Not now!

  Felix waved his hands in front of the port glass in an X and yelled, “No, Karen. Go back! Get out of here!”

  Either not hearing him or simply ignoring his warnings, Karen continued her run for the door. Behind her, Felix saw the distant silhouettes of two men at the other end of the tunnel.

  “No! No!” he yelled, pounding his fists upon the metal. He looked quickly down at Calendar, now spinning around on the floor, frantically barking at the frightening commotion.

  Suddenly, the deep rumble of an explosion shook the doorway. It wasn’t long before the entire room was shaking. Felix lost his footing and landed awkwardly on Calendar’s dome-shaped back. Quickly, he stood back to his feet and looked through the port glass for Karen. His face shook in horror as he watched the cavern collapsing behind her. Gigantic rocks avalanched through the pathway, crushing down around her with the weight of miles of Earth above them.

  As Karen approached the door, its mechanism engaged. But before it could slide open completely, a massive grey stone crashed down in front of it, scaring Felix back from the glass and knocking him off balance. He regained his footing and stumbled back to the door. It had opened a few inches from the floor before becoming broken by the stone’s impact.

  He dropped to the ground and hurriedly peered out from underneath the bent metal into the collapsing cavern beyond it. There he saw Karen, just a few feet away, both of her feet caught beneath fallen rock.

  “Karen!” he yelled. “What were you thinking?”

  “Felix,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

  “You have to get out of there. This whole cave is coming down!” he yelled.

  Another rock crashed on top of the rocks pinning Karen’s feet. She winced from the pain.

  “I know,” she said. “That’s why I came to warn you.”

  “You didn’t have to,” Felix said. “I knew. I had a plan!”

  Karen looked up at the cracked ceiling above her. The stone was splitting.

  “You knew?” She paused. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have long now. The ceiling is about to fall,” she said calmly. “I’m sorry for everything. All of this is my fault. The only thing I did was run away from it. I never did anything to stop it. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t save anyone.”

  Felix looked in horror to Karen’s eyes, drenched with fear, encased by the knowledge that death stood before her. He remembered the time they’d first met in the desert, how she’d dealt with his sarcasm and laughed at his jokes. In that one moment, he remembered every word she’d spoken, each smile she’d worn, each cold shoulder she’d given, and each warm remark she’d made. He looked behind him to the painting of the airport and back again to her. He couldn’t watch her die.

  “It’s not your fault,” Felix called to her. “You never had the chance to save anyone. But I do.”

  Felix thrust his arm beneath the door and slid the watch he’d spent two years building through the thin opening beneath it. It sailed easily to her grasp. “Put it on!” he yelled. She quickly latched the band to her wrist and looked up at the crumbling ceiling, full collapse imminent. She trembled.

  “Maybe someday,” she cried, “when we both get out of here, we’ll meet on the surface and things can be different. You said that to me once.”

  “Put your thumb on the glass!” Felix yelled.

  Hands shaking, she lifted her thumb and placed it on the watch.

  “You’re almost out!” Felix yelled. “Hang in there. Just five seconds more!”

  One, two, she counted. Karen looked up at the ceiling and watched it finally break apart. Large sections of stone began tearing down to the ground below. She was shaking with fear, but did her best to keep her mind calm. Three, four ...

  Suddenly, a huge piece of stone crashed down between Felix and Karen. He rolled back from the impact and away from the door. The force of the collapse shot the file that had been under Karen’s arm open, and a flurry of papers floated beneath the lab’s door. Another rock crashed against the entry immediately after, causing its mechanism to break and the door to fall permanently closed.

  Felix rushed to his feet and looked through the window of the door. He saw nothing but stone piled against the glass. It was impossible to know if she’d made it out.

  Felix turned and faced the empty laboratory. The shaking had stopped and the rocks had finally settled in the hallway. The room had become eerily silent. He looked down at the scattered papers on the floor. They’d come from Karen’s file. She had to have brought them with her for a reason.

  As he leaned down to collect the papers, he noticed an odd transparent plastic sheet between them. He pulled it from the stack to reveal a carefully preserved, pressed yellow tulip contained within.

  He walked back to his workstation and set the stack of papers on its top before sliding the pressed flower safely into the top drawer.

  Felix thumbed through the papers that had made it through the door. Most were parts of incomplete files, and all were out of order. Looking through them, a few key words caught his attention: something called the cycle, a program labeled “Advocate training,” a detailed description of something called the “indentured scientist program,” and a name: Paul Gourd.

  Felix dropped the papers onto his desk. He had time for that later, all the time he could ever need to go through them, gleaning whatever pointless knowledge he could from their contents. He walked to the wall behind him and leaned against its side as he crumpled slowly to the floor. With his head rested against open hands, he began to cry.

  He thought about the final words Karen had said to him and repeated them over and over in his mind. It was more than thirty years before he was spoken to again.

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