Bridging the Gap
I drove to the office that
day expecting to make the deal that would end my life, or make me rich beyond
my powers of imagination. On my way over, I thought about the possibilities. If
I got the money, I could finally go on that little moon cruise I'd been
thinking about, see if things are really that much better up there.
Heck, I might be even able to afford a Martian cruise. Anything to take me away from the drudgery of a desk job, so I could see if the rest of the solar system had anything better to offer than its third planet.
But if the experiment ended my life, then so be it. I simply wouldn't be doing any of those things, or really anything at all. The reason why I made a good candidate for the experiments is that I didn't care about any of those things. Didn't have any attachments to speak of, no one to miss me. Looking back, it all seems silly, but that was my state of mind. Sure, I take my meds, and it takes the edge off, but there are certain things not even incredible modern medicine can take care of.
Anyway, I don't want to get bogged down in all that. After I stepped into the waiting room, I talked to the receptionist—Julia, if I remember right—and she handed me a tablet.
“Just sign this form," she said. "And have a seat. We’ll get right to you."
It's easier to believe lies like that when someone pretty tells them. She was… well, I won’t go much into that either. The waiting room looked like all the ones in all the doctor’s offices I’ve ever been to. A bunch of none-too-comfortable plastic chairs strewn about with reading material, on-demand holoscreens, and tablets. Somewhere, the newscast droned on out of sight and I remember feeling that with all of their money, these guys could at least spring for climate control.
I took a seat and crossed my legs, waiting for them to call my name for the interview. To keep myself occupied, I browsed through the things to read, but I couldn't keep my mind still. I reminded myself that I didn't care one way or the other, but then my own mind told me it was a lie. It would be great to see the moon before I die.
I looked up from my reading material, and that's when I saw you. I know you don't remember. There you were in that sundress, green-blue with yellow little bursts. Oh, and your lab coat, of course. I don't mind telling you that I stared for a few seconds. It’s not often you meet a girl with perfect legs, and I admit, I’m a sucker for redheads. Then I looked up and I saw something that made me forget even your perfectly formed legs. You guessed it: your face.
Usually, I see a pretty girl, appreciate her with my eyes, and that's about as far as it goes. That day, I figured I was going to be dead soon or incredibly wealthy. Either way, things were bound to turn out better than usual.
I walked over there and said the first thing that came to mind, which for me is usually a bad idea. "Hey, you here for the teleporter experiment?" I asked.
That's when I saw the name tag on your lab coat. Unless for some reason you wanted to impersonate someone who worked at the clinic, I already had my answer. But you, well, you didn't rub it in. Instead, you shot me one of those gorgeous smiles where one side of your mouth goes a little bit higher than the other side while you showed me your badge. "No, I'm helping with them. My shift is about to start, but I got here a little bit early, so I decided to wait out here for a while."
I have to admit, I almost turned back after looking like such an idiot. But you didn't even show a hint of mockery, and I liked the feeling of just being close to you, no matter what I said. "Well, I’m one of rats," I said. “Got any words of encouragement for me before I teleport to the cheese?"
I know it wasn't really funny, but you laughed anyway.
"Really not much. So far, we’ve only had minor…" Your voice trailed off as you were probably trying to figure the most diplomatic words to say. You didn't have to, but you didn't know that at the time.
"… unexpected developments," you said.
I took a seat because I found myself staring. "That's good. I mean that guy’s eye patch could be for anything. I’m signed on for one of those the long hauls. Have you done any of those yet?"
It was your turn to look away, and I could tell from your voice you felt a little bit of sympathy for me. "Oh, not yet. Not many who wanted to sign up. Hope you don't mind me asking, but what made you do it? It is pretty risky. They explained all that, right?"
"I don't know," I said. "My life hasn't been going much of anywhere for some time. Every time I try something new, I feel like it's doomed for failure. I guess I think I’m playing it too safe and I wanted to try something new.” I drew in a very deep breath and let it out slowly, and probably a little bit to dramatically. I wasn't exactly thinking the straightest. "If I die, it will all be over, and if I get the money, I can shake things up. I guess it just makes sense to me."
That's when you reached out and placed a hand on my knee. It was so strange. I hadn't had affectionate physical contact since who knows how long.
"We're doing everything we can make sure you come through in one piece…all your pieces. I’ll really do my best."
I was about to thank you, but I never got the chance. So I guess I could take it now. Thank you for saying that. It stuck with me.
The door to the lab opened, and a man in a lab coat and a neatly trimmed beard stepped out. “Attention, everyone," said the man. "I regret to inform you that we are having some technical obstacles. We've sent for a crew to investigate, but for now, we are done. Please speak to the receptionist and she can get you rescheduled as early as tomorrow. Should have it all beaming around again by then."
Many groaned, but I felt strange strangely relieved. It was like I had been in a deep sleep, and somebody brought up the lights and splashed water on my face. The thought of postponement, even by a day, seemed like a great gift.
I stood, intent on not being the last in line to reschedule, and turned to you with a smile. "Guess this was bound to happen once or twice," I said. "Will you be here tomorrow?"
You nodded with your head cocked to the side and a sort of sleepy smile. "Yep, I'm here every day until the experiment concludes. Government contract, you know? Because I'm on a pretty strict deadline until then, so I'll be up pretty late tonight.
"Hang in there," I said, surprising even myself. “I’m sure it will work out.” I never talked that way.
I saw the receptionist and got the appointment rescheduled for the next day for around the same time, but earlier just to make sure I caught you.
I won’t bore you with the details the rest of that night, because pacing my room and wandering the city late into the night aren’t that interesting. Let me just say that I really thought of only one thing: seeing you the next day.
I went over everything in my head, trying to make certain I hadn’t been too much of a fool, and wondering over and over whether you really would want to talk to me again. You seemed so perfect, and I was a mess.
Here I was a washed-out man with no job, living in a government apartment, with no friends or family to speak of. I attempted something close to sleep that night, but not very well. I let myself dream naturally as I do most nights. The dream devices they have in their government apartments to keep people happy never really appealed to me.
Anyway, early in the morning, I decided I was not going to sleep anymore, so I got ready. I could only wait around so long, so I went to the lab and just sat there, watching the people arrive. It looked like people were going in and out of the lab, so they must have fixed whatever was wrong with it yesterday.
I watched closely and saw that everybody that went in came out again and I didn't see any of the missing limbs or grotesque mutations that they warned about in the literature. Though most people probably hadn’t signed up for the same thing I was. I did see one guy come out with this hand hidden in this coat, but I guess that could have been for a lot of reasons.
I had a lot of time to think as I sat there, and the more I thought about it, the less I really wanted to go through with it. I was probably just reaching for the stars, but let's face it, even though my chances with you were pretty small, they would be zero if I died. Who likes those odds?
I kept staring at the door every time someone walked in, but it was never you. Then I looked at the clock, and it was two minutes to my appointment. The lady at the desk called my name, and I walked slowly to her, looking around, just in case I could have missed something. How could I have missed you? It would be like looking up at the clear sky and missing the sun.
The receptionist called me, and I continued as slowly as I could. She directed me to the lab door, which slid away. There was a round viewport in the door, and as it turned back to look through it, I saw you entering, looking a little frazzled. I wanted to rush back to the door to say something to you, anything before I went through this, but then someone grabbed me by the arm and led me away.
"So I see you are here for Phase I today," said the man who held my arm. I looked over and saw the same short man who had made the announcement about the difficulties the day before. "Oh, I see you are one of our Phase II candidates," he said. "In fact, the very first one. You are a brave soul. I must thank you in advance."
At that moment I felt anything but brave. Miserable maybe, but definitely not brave.
“So, today we will be going through Phase I, which is simply the short transport that everyone else goes through, and we’ll proceed to Phase II tomorrow, provided you give your continued consent and aren’t, well”—the lab tech gave a simple shrug, as though he were talking of nothing more than the weather—“incapacitated.”
Tomorrow. I have never heard a word sound so sweet as it did when he said it. Well, it wasn’t anything special about his voice…just the meaning of the word itself. It meant one more chance, even if I did end up with nine toes or fingers after this.
I guess you already know much about the process, or at least you knew it. Basically they put me on one platform, stood in front of a control panel, and told me to relax, to clear my mind of anything that might cause me stress. They said it was the calm ones who had the best chance of coming through unscathed when being teleported.
They explained a whole lot of things about entropy and things that I didn't really listen to all that well. I wanted to remain calm, but the truth is, inside I was a mess. I took an astronomy class once where the teacher told us about the great dark spot on Jupiter, which is a massive storm that never stops. That’s about how I felt as I stood there, waiting for him to push the button.
I couldn't actually see the button, but in my mind, it was big and red with flashing warnings around it. Authorized Personnel Only, Keep out of reach of children, and the like. Last, they asked me if I were ready, and I lied and told them I was.
At the last second, I balled both my hands into fists, feeling my muscles tense up. The experience began and ended in only an instant. I didn’t really see or feel anything, but found myself on the other side of the room. After a second or two, I realized something really had changed. Pain, and a lot of it.
I looked down at my hands saw open wounds all over them as though entire layers of my skin had neglected to come with me. My forehead and cheeks felt the same in smaller patches. The technician pounded another button and a group of medical personnel rushed in, wrapping bandages around the exposed skin and lowering me to a stretcher. I tried to ask what was going on, but somebody administered a sedative, and I lost consciousness for a while
I woke up staring at a tiled ceiling and flickering fluorescent lights. I could not remember coming here, and the buzzes and beeps of medical machinery filled the air with a constant din.
I busied myself with apologies and paperwork. I had to sign and initial so many places it was ridiculous. They gave me the option to opt out, but also raised the rewards if I decided to return. I zoned out through most of it, but I sat up straight when they asked me if I wanted another appointment tomorrow. Sure, I did, but it wasn't for the reason that these people expected. If didn't come back tomorrow after missing you today, I would have missed my chance.
They let me rest for a while longer then saw me out the door. The wounds were not nearly as bad as I feared, just painful. I had some splotches on my hand which are even now healing and single large patch on my forehead, which I hoped would go away pretty soon.
Once again, I couldn't bring myself to go directly home, so I roamed the city again through its various levels. I even went to the very top of the layered city, as far as I had ever gone, gazing at the metropolis in which I’d lived my entire life.
Never have I felt so small. The city stretched out to every horizon, layer upon layer, teeming with life like a jigsaw puzzle forced together from a bunch of mismatched pieces. And I was only one piece in one city, in one country, in one world, in one solar system, that was only a part of one galaxy.
I stared at the sight for as long as I could, and then felt like going home, where at least the walls and ceiling would protect me from the panoramic view of my nothingness.
As I rounded the corner in my hallway, I caught just the faintest glimpse of red hair as someone else rounded the next quarter. Hoping beyond hope, I sped up and called you just before you disappeared. "Hi,” I said. "Did you stop by to see me?"
You stopped and turned, your face taking on that same worried expression I’d seen so many times when I was little, when my mother would find me hurting. "I did," you said. "I was hoping to see you again before my shift, but I got held up. Then I heard what happened to you and I had to come see if you were doing alright." You patted the area around the bandage on the head. "Does it hurt much?"
In fact, I wasn't currently in any pain, but I shrugged, trying to look a little tougher than I felt. "It’s not so bad. I heard somebody saying that some guy lost his entire hand. The pain lets me know it's still there."
Suddenly you took hold of my arms just above the elbow. "You can't go through with Phase II,” you said. "There are still so many things we don't know about why some people go through safely, and others don't. You wouldn’t survive if this happened over your whole body.”
Silence fell for a few seconds. But I had already made my mind up. I no longer knew whether I wanted to live or die, but if I lived and tried to pursue you, I wanted to be able to provide a future. If I didn't do experiment, I would be left with nothing. I couldn’t ask you to accept that.
"I have to go tomorrow. I signed my name and said that I would. I just need to relax little more."
You tried to convince me for five minutes, and I admit, I let the conversation drag on a little bit longer than it needed to. There's just something magical about speaking with you, even if you were disagreeing with me. Also, it felt so strange to have someone actually worried about what happened to me.
Then you placed your hands on your hips, the look in your eyes letting me know that you meant business. "I will only let you go if I can take care of the experiment myself," you said.
"Can you do that?" I asked.
You didn't change your expression. "I think so. I have to get permission, but I think I can manage it. You’ve got to promise me, you only go through with it if I'm at the helm. Agreed?"
I agreed pretty quickly with you. There probably wasn’t much you couldn't convince me to do at that time, but I don't expect you to take advantage of that now that you know it. Anyway, I did agree, and asked you what you were doing the rest the night. Technical difficulties again, it seemed, but there was nothing you can do about it. "Then, seeing as it might be my last night, would you spend it with me?"
Believe me, the words surprised even myself. I’d never been so forward with someone, but then again, it's also easy to live that way when you don't have so much to lose.
Then you lowered your hands from your hips, and I can't remember a time when I’ve been so happy. I'm not just saying that. I really couldn't. A lot of things I guess I’ve chosen not to remember. It’s as though I’ve spent a lifetime sifting through dirt to find that one precious gold nugget.
The rest of the night is not much of a story, but though it wasn't elaborate, I still enjoyed every second. We walked the city as I have done so many times alone, but now I saw everything in a bit of a new light. The faces we passed seemed cheerful and light, something that I had never noticed before. I caught glimpses of beauty all around—a flower display in window, strains of music wafting from someone's apartment, the smell of baked goods and fresh meats from passing restaurants.
We thought about going into one of them, but ended up eating something from a vendor just so we could go on walking and talking, working our way upward as the dusk turned into night.
Finally, we reached the top level where I had stood the previous day, and I almost suggested going somewhere else. I remembered how I had felt not so long ago and didn't want to dampen my feelings now. But you insisted, and so we climbed up an observation tower.
To my surprise, things looked quite different, sparkling lights in every color imaginable stretched out in every direction. Even in the darkness, the world was filled with light below and from above as billions of stars stared down.
We talked for a long time, and you told me about your family, your two little sisters, and how your father worked so hard so that you could attend medical school.
I saw the entire world as pieces again and instead of seeing the jumbled mishmash that I had before, I saw two interlocking pieces that fit perfectly in with the rest of the whole. As the thought came to mind, I reached out and placed my hand on yours, and we stood there for a long while, basking in the lights from above and below, reaching for each other and meeting somewhere in the middle.
When I finally walked you home, you didn't say much. When you pulled away from an embrace, I looked in your eyes and saw deep sadness there. I tried to apologize, but you assured me that I had done nothing wrong.
I lay in my bed then, and my mind remained alert for a few hours more. I was so exhausted from the day, however, that at least I finally managed to sleep.
The next morning was Saturday, so I didn't get up until a little bit before my appointment. Even though you were gone, I felt you close. The sweet smell of your perfume still clung to my clothing so that with every breath, my mind conjured memories of your face and how it felt to be cared about, even if just a little.
I couldn’t got to the lab wearing the same clothes as yesterday, however, so I changed quickly before taking the transport to the lab, unsure of what else to do. Though it was a bit before my appointment I looked around and saw that you weren't there.
Cursing my luck, I thought that you had been held up two days in a row. I wanted to see you again before I went through with Phase II. I figured that maybe you had simply made good on your promise to take over as a technician and were already in there.
After a few minutes, the receptionist called my name. She walked me through the waiting room, the others staring in my bandages, probably wondering if they were going to share my fate. The same technician as yesterday took me down the hallway and explained that I would not be able to see the other platform this time as it was much farther away. It was farther than anyone had ever been sent before. On the way, they gave me a mild sedative to calm my nerves.
I approached the platform with slow steps, the knot clenching tighter in my stomach. I couldn’t see you at the control panel and I had promised that I would stop unless you were there. Someone from behind me pushed me forward, and I could feel the sedative working, dulling my mind and my senses.
My vision blurred, and I thought that maybe they had given me too much of the sedative. A few steps from the platform, I tripped over something and fell hard on one knee.
Just as I looked up, a blur of motion whizzed past me. When my eyes focused for moment, I saw you running up to the platform and standing where I was supposed to stand. You only stood there for the instant before you vanished completely.
I didn't know whether to believe what I just seen. Could these drugs cause me to hallucinate? Could you run into the transporter that was meant for me? One of the technicians took me by the arm and helped me get to my feet.
"Where is she?" I screamed.
His eyes widened, and I've never seen such a stunned look on anybody. You’d think I had just told him that his nose had turned into a carrot. "I can't…" he said. "I don't know why she would do that. She activated the Phase II transport. If she is in one piece, she will be at the other end."
I don't remember much of what I said or did then; it was all kind of a blur. At some point, I collapsed and they gave me another shot of sedative, and this one knocked me completely out.
I remember waking up in that same room where I had recovered after the injuries of Phase I. It took a little time, but my head finally cleared and I asked one of the nurses where you were.
She got this look on her face for moment, and I assumed the worst. Maybe you had not gone through and had dissolved into billions of tiny pieces. You were just gone.
The nurse motioned over to a curtained-off area on the side of the room and found you lying in a bed, just staring off into space. I tried to talk to you, but you didn't respond to anything. I checked your pulse to make sure you were still breathing. Then you turned your head to look at me and asked, "Do I know you?"
You might as well have run me through the knife. I tried to talk to you, but you did not remember what you had done. You grew so distant I couldn't take anymore, and I ran out, not caring about paperwork. I ran into the street until I couldn't run anymore and I fell to my knees, my entire body aching, the pain in my heart going worse by the second.
Why had you risked everything for me? You had no idea what might happen when you stepped on that platform. You might have simply ceased to exist with no remains for your loved ones to mourn. And you had loved ones. It seemed so wrong to risk someone with so much to lose, when I could have risked myself.
I ran out of the clinic, ascending to the top layer of the city. Instead of looking up, this time I looked down. It would be a simple thing to slip from the edge, fall for a handful of seconds, and then be no more. No one but the police who found me would know who I was, and sadly, even you would not remember to grieve me.
I found a secluded corner where I would not be seen and climbed over the hand railing. I stood there as the wind picked up and looked around me. For a long time, I stood there, not knowing whether I could actually go through it. Perhaps your memory loss would be temporary, and you’d came out of it only to find out I had thrown myself away.
Even as I thought it, I realized it was foolish hope, something to cling to, because I had nothing left. It was time to be practical. I scooted my toes farther to the edge so that only my heels kept me from falling. I closed my eyes, raised my arms, and as I did, I heard a faint beeping.
This meant I had a message on my personal communication device. I held the arm with the PCD attached to it up to my face, and immediately took a step back when I realized it was from you.
I checked the date and found that it was not from today but late last night after I had taken you home. Let me read it to you.
"I have decided. I cannot bear to let you go through with this, so I’m going to take your place. The researchers lied to you. You aren't the first one that they’ve put through this phase of the testing. They only say that, because they know what happened to the others and want to be able to claim ignorance. If the subjects knew what would likely happen to them, no one would sign up.
“95% of the subjects who underwent Phase II experienced no bodily harm, but great mental harm. A few of them lost their minds, but the majority of them simply lost their memories. This phase hasn't been going on long enough to know whether they eventually get those memories back. So far, no one has.
“After every attempt, they use the data to tweak the process in hopes of finally being successful, but I know that my chances are still not good. That's why I need you to remember me. I'm writing this message to be delivered after I have already done what I’ve set out to do. I've sent myself a similar message and invitation. Tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock, meet me at the café just down the street from the lab. Then you must help me to realize why I did what I did.”
I jumped back over the railing so fast I almost tripped. On my way to the café, I read the message over and over and could hardly believe the words. No one else could have written it. Why would you risk everything for me? I asked myself. I'm not worth saving.
Just give me a moment. Sorry I don't usually… I can usually keep it together. There. Thanks.
That's what led me here. That's why we're sitting in this café right now, getting dirty looks from the waiter who is probably wondering why we haven't ordered yet.
That's why I beg
you to believe me. For some reason, you saw something in me worth saving, and
I'm here to return the favor. You gave me my life back. Let me give you yours.