She was silent and brooding on the drive home.
Snow was piled higher than the car on either side of the road. We were driving on a multi-lane highway, but there was barely enough room between the walls of snow for our Jeep to trudge forward on the treacherous path. Snow was still coming down hard, and even with the brights on, I could barely see twenty feet ahead.
She sat stiffly in the passenger’s seat, her unwavering eyes were fixated on something beyond the iced-over windshield. Just left of her gaze, a small crack crept upward from the base of the glass towards the center.
“Don’t chip the ice so hard on the windshield, you’ll crack it.” She had said to me before we started driving.
“Do you have a better idea?”
Apparently, she was right. I was hoping she didn’t notice.
It was late and we were the only ones left on the road, and yet we progressed at a lethargic twenty-five miles per hour, encountering no other cars aside from the occasional snowplow. They packed the snow into icy walls that swelled towards the sky.
Every once in a while she let out a sigh; not so much a I’m-feeling-sad sigh, but more of a If-you-haven’t-noticed-I’m-still-sitting-here-fuming-and-waiting-for-an-apology sigh.
The windshield was periodically icing over. Every half hour or so, without stopping, I’d roll down my window, reach in front of the car, and catch the icy wiper with my bare hand. Then I’d release it, and it’d smack onto the windshield and break some frozen buildup so I could navigate for the following twenty minutes, likely exacerbating the cracked windshield situation.
She decided to speak.
“The real problem is, you don’t know what you want.”
She said nothing more, letting the accusation seep in. I wondered if I could simply stay silent, and leave it at that, but she had turned her entire body sideways in the seat and was staring directly at me.
I know what you want.
I glanced in the rearview mirror. “Do you?”
She ignored the question. “You don’t know if you want to be with me or not. So you don’t break up with me, but you don’t really open up to me either. You treat everything like it’s temporary, replaceable. I used to think you just didn’t want to rush into anything. Now I think you just don’t trust yourself enough to make any real commitments.”
She was right about that, but I could not explain why.
“For weeks,” she continued, “you talk about getting away from everything to spend some time alone, in a cabin, in the snow. This isn’t the way I would choose to spend a weekend. I fucking hate the snow.” She crossed her arms in punctuation.
The wind against us picked up suddenly, and with a loud pop, the once tiny crack advanced sideways across the entire windshield. She definitely noticed now, and glared at me.
I don’t know what part of my saying I needed a weekend alone, away from everything and everyone, made her think I wanted to lock myself in a cabin, with her, for forty-eight hours. I decided to keep that lovely thought to myself.
You’re never alone.
We didn’t make it home until early morning.
“Take me to my apartment,” she demanded, softly. “I’ll come pick up my stuff later when you’re out.”
She’d been staying with me for so long I almost forgot she had a place of her own, but I didn’t argue.
When we arrived, she wordlessly extracted her suitcase, slammed the trunk, and disappeared into the building without a glance behind. I sat there for a minute without moving a muscle. I could tell this moment should have substance, should weigh me down with its gravity, but I was too far outside its orbit to decipher a signal.
I rolled down the windows and let the frigid air wrap around me. When I finally started shivering, I ignited the engine and drove home.
I tried to sleep for a few hours and got up just before noon, when my phone disdainfully informed me of the lunch I had scheduled at 12:30. It was a business lunch, but the inquiry came from an old friend, someone I hadn’t seen since college. His secretary had arranged the time and place.
We met at an upscale but unpretentious farm-to-table restaurant on the edge of the city. A tall, freckled woman walked me to a private booth in the back of the restaurant. Sam looked up from his phone and greeted me with a broad smile. I remembered that smile well, an unapologetic, genuine smile that made no attempt to hide its wearer’s pleasure.
“It’s good to see you, man.” he said. “It’s been a minute.”
He wore a thick wool coat, and a blood-red tie peeked out from underneath. Slick for an academic.
“Almost a decade.” I took a seat.
We ate and covered the requisite small talk. He told me about his fiancé, and how he drifted away from traditional psychiatric research and started researching public mental health. I gave him an informal tour of my résumé, and explained how I’d quit my old job a few years ago, and started working as an independent contractor.
“Do you get this dressed up for all your prospective clients?”
I was wearing blue jeans and a black V-neck.
“It’s a filter. I prefer to focus on results, not presentation. If I show up like this and clients still decide to hire me, there’s a better chance we’ll get along.”
“It must be nice to be able to be so selective about who you work for.” He said it sincerely. “Aren’t you worried your clients will choose someone who offers both?”
“I offer a unique skill set. There aren’t a lot of people who do what I do and even fewer who do it as well.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
I smiled. “I find signal in the noise.”
“To what end?”
“To whatever end the client has in mind.”
“And what makes you so good?”
“There are plenty of mathematicians who work on improving the theory behind predictive algorithms, but they lack the common sense to understand and solve for the real-world factors of a real-world problem. There are engineers who optimize the tools that are used to build these models, but they’re pretty removed from the models themselves and the art of digging into an actual dataset. Then there are data scientists who know how to dig into a problem and produce reports with sophisticated statistical analyses, but they don’t know how to build and optimize a model with unique constraints, and they certainly don’t know how to do it at scale, for datasets larger than a few million examples. Even after someone has reached a level of competence in all of these skills, there’s another piece that’s harder to quantify.”
“What’s that? Sounds pretty technical to me.”
“Those skills are technical. The final piece is different—it’s insight. With any difficult problem, understanding how the pieces fit together requires a theory. There’s no formula for that part. It’s one thing to list potential factors and explain how correlated they are with outcomes—that’s what most data scientists do. It’s another thing to form a model of how things work. It’s not just a matter of measuring things. To really understand the data, you need to become a part of it. You need to learn everything you can about the subject matter. You need to dive into example after example until a bigger picture forms.”
“How long does that take you?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes right away. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes I’m ready to give up on a problem when I wake up in the middle of the night and it suddenly all makes sense.”
He nodded. “Well, we might just have a challenge for you. We have a team of data scientists, supposedly top notch, and they haven’t been able to make any progress in the past six months. I even pulled in a few of the in-house DARPA guys, but no luck.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You have DARPA scientists working for you?”
I came to this lunch expecting to get some small-scale analysis work that I would mostly take as a favor for an old friend. DARPA funds the most cutting edge military technology—robots that can disassemble themselves to slide under doors, exoskeletons for super soldiers. Public mental health research wasn’t their regular agenda.
“Not officially. But that’s where my funding comes from these days, and they’re very invested in the success of this project. Let’s just say that if you can crack this, you won’t need to find any other clients for as long you want.”
“Why does DARPA care about public mental health?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not here. Why don’t you come by the lab tomorrow and I’ll show you?”
He gave me the address and we agreed on a time as we walked out of the restaurant.
“By the way,” he asked before we parted ways. “How’s your Kami?”
Back in college, Sam was fascinated by what he called “Kami.” Brought up in Japan, he was raised both Buddhist and Shinto. Kami are the natural spirits, or forces, that are worshiped in the Shinto religion. I guess that’s where he got the idea originally, but even by the time I met him in college the concepts were only loosely connected.
Sam saw Kami as natural forces, with as of yet undiscovered basis in the physical world. He saw them as real, but unexplained, beings that could directly influence our conscious experience. He’d cite the long history of exorcisms, instances of mass hysteria, and haunted places that reliably drove their inhabitants insane. He believed that many of the oldest and most ubiquitous phenomena across cultures, discarded by science, would one day be explained by Kami.
Before I met Sam, I had only ever thought about it as my shadow. I was in middle school when I first noticed it.
I remember running around the backyard of the old house playing with my youngest brother, Max, who was only four at the time. It was early fall, and the sun was already low in the sky. We had a large backyard then, at least three acres, and the ground was littered with red, yellow, and brown leaves. Large red oaks covered the property.
In one corner of the yard was the Gully, and in autumn we would rake the yard, of our own free will, just to fill it with the largest pile of leaves we could possibly collect. We’d rake all the leaves from every corner of the yard until the gully became a pool of leaves higher than our heads and at least twice as wide across. Then we’d take a running start from and vault into the pile, over and over again for hours, in every form imaginable, until our parents called us inside for dinner.
I was taking turns diving into the gully with Max, when we discovered that not only could we jump or dive into the pile, but we could actually somersault off the edge of the gully into the leaves as well, and we were laughing so hard our ribs were aching. Max was getting ready to roll again—he started as far back from the gully as possible to build up some speed—but as he got close to the gully he mistimed the roll and slid headfirst into the center of the pile. He was stuck deep in the leaves, probably upside down. I could hear him yelling and I ran in behind him and dragged him all the way through, leaving a child-deep crevice running through the pile. We both tumbled out on the other end of the gully and lay rolling on the ground, cracking up, when suddenly something changed. Something felt different.
I couldn’t tell if the sun had gotten lower or if we just landed in a particularly covered spot but suddenly it felt like a shadow had come over the sky, over the lawn, over me. I quickly got to my feet and really looked at Max. He was still lying on the ground, rolling around and cracking up. He was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down the sides of his face. Suddenly I wasn’t laughing with him anymore, but watching him, from what felt like very far away.
When was the last time I laughed that hard? Had I ever felt the kind of happiness he was feeling right then and there? What had I already lost, in just the earliest stages of transformation from child to adult, that Max clearly still had and that allowed him to feel such unbridled joy?
Try as I might, I was unable to shove those thoughts aside and reenter the moment. Everything felt fragile, temporary, dying before its time. I thought about the sun setting earlier every evening, and how I’d get less and less time outside as the days grew shorter. I couldn’t comprehend how much time had already passed in my life, without my noticing. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Why did this moment come out of nowhere, jerking me into a sudden panic when I had been blissfully unaware of time’s relentless passage? I wanted to close my eyes, to ignore the painful insight, but I was terrified that if I turned away I’d suddenly wake up again, old and wrinkled, regretting a century of wasted life on my deathbed.
I was sitting on the ground and Max was standing in front of me now, looking at me strangely. He sensed something was off. I knew I couldn’t breathe a word of my awful glimpse of reality to him. I wanted no part in ruining that blissful ignorance.
He grinned. “Your turn again!”
We pushed the leaves back into a single pile and I half-heartedly took my turn, unable to pry my attention back to the glorious sport at hand. A few minutes later Dad called us into the house to get ready for dinner.
We were both covered in filth. There were clumps of leaves sticking out of the collar of my coat and dirt caked on my clothes and hair. My hands were brown. Dad grabbed Max to rinse him off before dinner and I went upstairs to hop in the shower.
I was lost in thought in the shower, still trying to wrap my head around what had happened outside, when I realized that I had lost track of time. I didn’t know how long I’d been in the shower for, but my skin was red from the hot water and the bathroom was thick with steam.
I got out and dried myself off. I looked at myself in the mirror, really inspecting myself, searching for clues. Something had changed in my eyes. I moved my face closer and closer to the mirror until I was looking directly into my own eyes and studied them from inches away. I had always had blue eyes but these were icy blue eyes, icier than I had ever remembered seeing before, patterned like the wall of an ice cave deep in the heart of a glacier. More and more of my vision became layers of ice and blue and then suddenly I slipped through the mirror.
There’s really no other way to say it. One second I was watching my reflection in the mirror and the next I was my reflection watching myself. I was on the other side. I still looked like myself, and I was aware of the ground beneath my feet and the steam on my skin but they were sensations I was only aware of now, they weren’t happening to me, they weren’t mine.
I was still there, that was for sure, but someone else was in control. He backed away from the mirror and looked around. He put my hands on my cheeks and ran them through my hair, down my neck, and across my body. He pinched a roll of fat on my side and looked at it disapprovingly in the mirror. He swayed back and forth a few times and rolled my shoulders, as if testing the fit of a new suit, and then suddenly smacked my cheeks with both hands. He shook my head like a wet dog, looked me in the eyes, and winked before walking out of the bathroom and going downstairs to join my family for dinner.
“Did you know that only 43 percent of the human body is made up of human cells?” Sam was giving me a whirlwind tour of microbiology. “If you exclude red blood cells, which are basically just non-nucleated bags of hemoglobin, the percent of human cells in the body is actually less than 10 percent.”
I arrived at Sam’s lab expecting chalkboards, grad students, and leather therapy couches. Instead, the underground military compound we walked through was littered with massive vats, cold storage chambers, test tubes and microscopes. We passed armed patrols every few minutes.
“Now most of these microbes are in the gut, and that’s where most microbiome research has focused so far. I suspect this isn’t the primary vector for the level of psychological influence we’re observing, but it’s possible. There are over five-hundred million neurons in the enteric nervous system—more than five times as many as in the spinal cord—and it can act entirely independently from the brain. That’s why it’s often referred to as the second brain.”
On the wall of his office was a giant circular tree of life, with hierarchies of life branching out from the center to the perimeter. A slice, less than a quarter of the way around was labeled Eukarya. Everything living on the planet that I’d call remotely familiar was smushed in this unimpressive corner of the graphic—animals, plants, fungi, even molds and algae. Over half the pie was Bacteria. The rest was labeled Archaea.
Before 1977, there was just Bacteria and Eukarya. Carl Woese was the first person to sequence Archaea, thus discovering an entirely different, third branch of life. He was ridiculed for a decade before his observations were taken seriously. For a few decades after that, Archaea were still seen as a sideshow, notable only for their ability to survive in extreme conditions such as salt flats, acid pools, and methane vents.
“We only recently came to learn that they reside nearly everywhere, including the human body.” Sam explained. “Which just goes to show how little we know about this world.”
Along the outside of the circle, spanning across Bacteria and Archaea, Sam had scribbled the words, “Old Things.”
“Do you know where consciousness comes from?” Sam asked me.
I shook my head.
“No one does. No one has a clue. There are a few theories out there, but as soon as you dig into the details you realize they’ve either stopped talking about consciousness or they’ve stopped making sense. There’s plenty of theories pinned on neocortical columns or giant neurons in the claustrum or global ignition firing patterns, as if wiring up transistors in the perfect pattern or at the same time would suddenly make a motherboard feel all of this.” He waved his hands around. “No one even has a reasonable hypothesis about consciousness.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Sam, what does microbiology have to do with consciousness?”
“My point is that everyone studying consciousness is looking here.” He stood up and pointed to the infinitesimal sliver on his wall labeled Homo Sapiens. “It took us less than five-hundred million years to evolve from trilobites to humans building spaceships.” He spread his arms across the two domains labelled Old Things. “These things have been thriving for nearly four billion years, and we’ve just barely begun to glimpse the sophistication of their behavior.”
“Okay, but do we have any reason to believe they’re . . . conscious?”
“Do you have any reason to believe I’m conscious?” He looked at me seriously. “It’s not a trivial question. We assume that other things that look like us feel like us, but we have no idea where consciousness comes from or what role it plays, if any, in behavior. As far as we know, conscious is completely orthogonal to the mechanisms of human stimulus and reaction.”
“Let me see if I have this straight.” I took a deep breath. “Most cells in the human body are actually not human cells, but cells that belong to entirely different domains of life, much older domains of life. These older domains of life, once thought to be simple and irrelevant, have now been shown to have massive impacts on the biospheres around them, on a scale and to an extent that we’ve barely glimpsed, and including at least a handful of documented examples of direct influence on human psychology. Am I following so far?”
He nodded approvingly.
“And you brought me here to solve a data science problem. Which means you’ve been collecting data.”
“That’s right,” said Sam. “Let me show you the isolation tanks.”
As Sam led me from his office towards the isolation tanks, I noticed a distinct sense of panic from my Kami.
On the occasions when my Kami took control, I’d find myself horrified by the reckless nature of his exploits. Heights have always terrified me, but he’d gleefully scale construction sights and revel in the pounding of my heart. He’d start drunken brawls and savor the taste of my blood in my mouth. This wasn’t malicious, suicidal, or even masochistic; it was a primal drive that valued the magnitude of sensation over its direction.
Now, however, a ripple of unease emanated from my Kami, like a dog pacing too frantically around a room, barking at phantoms.
The isolation tanks were menacing, and bore no resemblance to the wellness tanks I’d seen before, which were designed to look like pristine, space-age hot tubs with easy-open lids. These were industrial steel containers with electronic combination pads on the door. There were eight of them in total, and only one had an open door.
“The rest are currently occupied,” Sam said. He pulled an empty glass tube out of his pocket and walked me towards the entrance.
My Kami thrashed about in my skull like a caged elephant sensing a tsunami. I felt him tensing my vocal cords, trying to scream my lungs out. Years of pushing against each other had strengthened my resistance (and his), but resisting was starting to drain my mental resources from the conversation at hand.
Observe the tension. Conceptualize it. Dismiss it.
Sam slipped his arm through the tank’s open door and filled the glass tube with water from inside. The water had a thick, milky hue. This, he told me, was the future of psychiatry.
“We’ve seen staggering results across a wide range of mental illnesses. Schizophrenia, addiction, major depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD—lots of PTSD; many of our volunteers are military—multiple personality disorder, you name it. Forty-eight hours in the tank, and we’ve turned the most severe cases into model citizens.”
I could feel myself starting to perspire along my scalp and palms.
It’s just sensory data. There is only the data. The subject is an illusion.
“How does it work?”
Sam smiled and swirled the test tube. “That’s why you’re here. We extracted and cultured the microbial colonies from locations with histories of having healing properties. Holy places where people would go to lose their demons. When we started, we found statistically significant effects from a number of places, but when we stumbled on our current strain, the results blew us away.”
I tried to appear relaxed while resisting what was now a full-fledged attack for my mental reins.
There is no feeler of the feelings. There are just the feelings.
I unclenched my jaw. “So what do you need me for?”
“We’ve been unable to identify the strains responsible for the transformation. It’s incredibly expensive to grow and maintain the cultures as is. Entirely unscalable. We need to identify the active strains if we’re to have any hope of productionizing this. We need you to pull the panacea out of what is still, basically, a pile of mud.”
Sam didn’t ask me about my Kami once the whole day. Maybe he didn’t notice me struggling, or maybe he just decided not to say anything. When I finally made it outside and out of sight, my fortitude gave way. I watched myself sprint to the jeep and race away.
It was Saturday morning when I woke up to find myself back in control.
To say I woke up would be misleading. The possibility of being awake manifested itself the way water breaks, and not the way a baby is born. My eyes weren’t open yet, but I could tell it was bright from under the blood-colored smokescreen of my eyelids.
My eyes cracked open. Bright blue. A soft breeze. I was outside.
Beneath me, warm and wet. Hard. Brittle. My heel inched across the surface. Concrete. Interesting.
My arm tingled with pins and needles. This was unsurprising—my back was on the ground but somehow my arm was behind my back. Not an ideal position for blood flow. And wet. And holding something.
I was lying on the edge of a pool. But whose pool? I pulled my hand out of the pool and brought the object it was holding to my face. It was a smartphone. Newer than mine. I dropped the device and let it sink to the bottom.
With a great effort I pulled myself to a seated position, letting my feet dangle in the water. I squinted at my own waist. What was I wearing?
Blue shorts. White trim. Mine? I wasn’t sure. White letters on the side. “Ranney Girls Lacrosse.” Not mine.
Where am I? I sniffed, but my nose felt stuffed. Not stuffed, blocked. My hand wiped a nostril, leaving a trail of white powder on my palm. Cocaine? No, too soft. Crushed Percocet.
I must be at Clare’s house.
Clare, the first classmate to invite me to a birthday party when I moved to a new school in eighth grade. We bonded as rebellious teenagers over a shared disdain for authority and a cynical worldview. Hers was a home of laissez-faire parenting and extravagance, with easy access to cash, liquor, and prescription pills. This, along with her tendency towards nihilism, quickly established Clare as one of my Kami’s most reliable thrill-seeking compatriots.
In our twenties, as I learned how to control my Kami, Clare slid into an ever-numbing pattern of excessive drinking and self-medication. We stayed in touch, but saw less and less of each other.
I had been invited to her Escape from Rehab party—not the first―and I had definitely sent my regrets.
I look over my shoulder, at the mansion behind me.
“Good morning!” said Clare’s mom, entirely unfazed by the Solo cups littering her backyard. She sat with Clare’s sisters around a table on the patio. “Join us for breakfast?”
I scoured at least fifteen bedrooms, most of them occupied the previous night’s attendees, before I found my clothes. Clare stopped me at the front door.
“Darling,” she said deviously, “you weren’t going to leave without saying goodbye, were you? It was so, so nice that you were able to make it after all.”
I looked at the ground. “I shouldn’t have come. And you shouldn’t be partying. Not yet.”
“I already told you,” she reproached, “I was in rehab for Ambien!”
I rolled my eyes and moved towards the door. She blocked my path.
“Gosh, you’re just so functional these days, aren’t you?” She said it with disdain, but put a hand on my cheek and looked me in the eyes. “I still know the real you. You aren’t a machine. You’re a hurricane.”
I made it back to my apartment in once piece. My girlfriend had picked up her things, and with them, any trace of disorder. Bare walls, spotless counter, methodical bookshelf. No pictures, no posters, no artwork. She had always complained that it felt cold. I called it stoic.
In the bathroom, I splashed some cold water on my face and stared into my own eyes.
Is that what you are? Just some parasite living in my brain?
Something inside me laughed. What makes you think that’s not you?
I pulled out my phone and called Sam.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I want to go in the tank.”
“Lucky you,” he said. “A spot just opened up.”
I joined Sam in the middle row of a black SUV. Apparently it wasn’t wise to drive home immediately after two days in Sam’s cauldron, so he came to get me.
A clipboard, full of paperwork and hungry for signatures, lay on my seat. I skimmed it, signed the Xs, and handed it over to Sam.
“Do you know how E. Coli moves towards nutrients?”
I shook my head.
“It’s quite ingenious,” he mused. “E. Coli have sensors, but the sensors can only detect how high the concentration of a given nutrient is exactly where they are. And they’re so tiny that even if they had many tiny sensors all over their surface, the difference in concentrations on one end to the other would just be noise. It wouldn’t tell them which way to go.”
I thought about the icy drive home with my girlfriend, or my ex-girlfriend. Her eyes, fixated through the iced over windshield, seeing nothing, feeling everything. Had I been upset when she decided to leave? Was I disappointed? Depressed? Relieved?
“It turns out,” Sam explained, “that they solve a problem of space with time. They have one fast sensor and one slow sensor. When the slow sensor detects higher levels of nutrients than the fast sensor, they change direction. When the fast sensor detects higher levels, they continue in the same direction. The change in its surroundings, over time, informs whether to power forward or try something new.”
What had we even been fighting about? The subject of the disagreement, I knew, didn’t matter. What began with a pinprick grew sharper every time I failed to bleed. Was she moving in the right direction?
“So,” I asked, “are you suggesting that E. Coli is conscious?”
“I’m suggesting that by delaying sensation it has avoided the need for representation. It has no abstract values, just sensation and reaction. It is a creature without tension, like Adam in the Garden of Eden. I’m suggesting that if you slapped a large enough system of pulleys and levers in between those two sensors, we’d be talking about intentions and evil every time someone got sick from eating a hamburger.”
In the Garden of Eden, Adam ate when he was hungry, slept when he was tired, and fucked when he was horny. Conscious, certainly, but with no concept of self. He was pure subjective experience, until he saw his own nakedness through god’s eyes and became Adam, the object. Adam, the chess piece in a board game. Adam the equation; forever at odds with Adam the phenomenon.
The lab was intimidating as a potential hire; as a research subject it was unnerving. Sam left me in a nurses station to prepare for my treatment, and two stony-faced armed chaperones waited outside. I took off my shirt and lay on the exam table while the nurse collected artifacts of blood, hair, saliva, and swabbed every conceivable orifice. Then he left the room and asked me to change into what can only be described as the medical smock analog of board shorts.
Dressed for surgery on a surfboard, I was ushered through the lab to the isolation tanks. I was not surprised to see that, once again, only one of the eight tanks was open.
Sam was waiting by the entrance. “Ready to go?”
I eyed the tank, the glowing numeric keyboard next to the door. I had forgotten all about the locks. “Will the tank be locked while I’m inside?”
Sam glanced at the chaperones. “It will, yes. But don’t worry, you’ll be observed at all times. If anything goes awry—which it never does—help will be right outside.”
“Does it have to be? I mean, aren’t all your subjects volunteers?”
“For the most part, yes.” Sam hesitated. “The truth is, sometimes it’s like these diseases have minds of their own. When they get near the colony, it’s as if they detect a threat, and they don’t want to be cured. So, we’ve noticed a tendency for those diseases to resist at the last moment.”
I remembered how my Kami reacted, outside the tank. Wasn’t it a good thing if he was scared?
Are you so sure that I’m the one who’s going to disappear?
“What do you mean, the diseases resist?”
Sam took a deep breath. “Well . . . That’s why we started getting the paperwork filled out before our subjects get near the colony. So if we have to, we can help them take this final step.”
My escorts stood directly behind me, watching me closely.
I kicked the slippers off of my feet. Sam nodded, clearly relieved.
I stepped into the tank, and the door locked behind me.
I floated on my back and stared into darkness. The world outside was inaudible through the thick steel walls, and even the liquid around me seemed to be muted. The air and water in the tank were perfectly calibrated to my body temperature, and after some time all three became indistinguishable.
How much time passed before the darkness transformed, slowly, to a uniform light? I have no idea. Time describes the rate of change from one frame of reality to the next, and my frames were all empty. Suddenly, without warning, it was so bright that I had to squint while my eyes adjusted.
I raised my head. The ground beneath me was hard again, and flat, and cold. I scratched the surface and pure white caked beneath my fingernail. The ice stretched on as far as my eyes could see.
There were no landmarks, no crevices, no clouds, no gradients of light. It was obvious that there was nowhere to go. I closed my eyes, let my head fall back onto the ice, and did not resist the cold seeping into my bones.
A droplet of water fell onto my face, and I looked up at the shadowed figure standing over me.
My face, black eyes.
“Get up,” my Kami said. “We have work to do.”