We thought it would end right there in the freezing air of the stone-lined tunnel…
|THE FIRE TUNNEL
Short Story by Gale Peterson
The planet revolved into the faint, bluish light, banishing darkness from the cold, ice-crusted surface, but only inside the glass enclosures is any heat from the distant star registered. Deep inside the small planet, neither warmth nor light penetrates inwards towards its dead core.
We thought it would end right there in the freezing air of the stone-lined tunnel…we knew it had to be the end. No heat, no real source of air, and the temperature hovered at nearly 80 below zero. Every breath froze as crystals just beyond the breathing tube. There is no such thing as divine intervention, be both knew that as well. So what good came from praying? What? A sudden burst of heat from a non-existent furnace?
Evencoe sat down rather suddenly, his legs no longer able to hold him up. I slid down the wall to sit beside him.
“We’re lost,” his muffled voice cracked from inside the face shield. “I can’t move.”
The single source of light at the end of the hallway was a dull red. I stared at it as it softened in the fog of Evencoe’s breath, noticing how the light sparkled in the air crystals.
Suddenly I became aware that the light started blinking off and on. Through the dullness of the cold I tried to reason it out. The light is going off…and on. Or is it my heart trying to beat and it just seems like…no, it’s dark when it’s off. Two seconds of dark, two seconds of red glow in the breath fog. Why? “Look,” I said, “The light.”
He didn’t move. He didn’t answer. I kept waiting for the beautiful red light to return. “Evencoe? Did you see the light?” Utter silence…total darkness. I wondered if it could get colder. Somehow….
* * *
The attendant’s bright smile and cheerful voice seemed like something out of a morning soap opera, something created for the dreary masses to feed upon. “Ah..so you’re awake! How’re you feeling?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “”I’ve got soft-boiled eggs with cheese sauce, toast, marmalade, and coffee with cream. Doctor says you are on the semi-bland diet for the next 24 hours.”
The bed began lifting me up to a sitting position as she arranged the tray of monochromatic, simulated breakfast in front of me. The crème-colored daisies in a dull yellow vase made a finishing touch.
My head felt fuzzy. The red light went out; I remembered that, the rest of it, only black nothing. “Do you…Could you…” I had to clear my throat and spit.
“Here Hon.” She popped a tissue over my mouth. “Spit it out. You’ve got a little congestion there. That’s a good boy!” The wadded tissue made a soft pud as it hit the bottom of the empty, metal waste container. “Now what are you try’in to say!” She attacked the pillow behind my back with little, staccato punches, fluffing me closer to the boiled eggs and daisies.
”Am I…uhhm…alive?” I managed to croak.
“What a thing to ask!” she gushed. “Of course you’re alive. Alive and well, and trying to avoid eating your breakfast.” Her smile sparkled. “Would you like me to feed you?” She lifted the spoon and began chopping into the boiled egg, exposing the runny, pale-yellow yoke.
I pushed back into the pillows. “No…thank you. If I’m alive, and this is not some kind of hell…then where am I. How did I become your special breakfast victim?”
“Hon, you’re gonna strain your pa-tooey. All I know is what the chart screen says, Semi-bland breakfast for 508A. The cheese sauce is the semi part.”
“But what about Evencoe? Did he make it?”
“What you need is to relax and have some breakfast.”
A spoonful of tasteless egg and cheese stopped any further questions. My concentration shifted to not gagging.
Secretly, I know my name is Dillard. Dillard P. Dunlapp, but that’s an embarrassment far in my past with ugly references to “Dill Pickle ”Now at the moment, in my recently-awakened condition, I'm not sure what name I’d given last, so I decided to keep my mouth shut and let them come up with a name.
Nurse is being disgustingly nice as she practically force-feeds me the tasteless breakfast. It cheers me up considerably when the revolting egg slime makes me actually throw up and she has to clean it up. That's when I knew I'm still alive. Not a clue as to where I am, or even into whose hands I have fallen.
This room is windowless…and colorless, like the tray of food. I will just have to wait. The nurse doesn’t return after she left with the mop bucket and tray. The silence is complete, except for an occasional whump when the air system turns on. I wait and listen, straining to hear something, a voice down the hall outside, the rattle of a cart, footsteps…anything. I must have dozed off after that.
“You’re a scrubby-looking bastard.” I looked up from the softly sparkling water of the stream and the fishing pole I has holding to face my Uncle. Uncle Neville? And I’m fishing? I hate fishing, and I especially dislike my Uncle Neville.
“Hey? Are you gonna lay there all day?”
What is he talking about? I’m sitting on this wooden pier fishing.
“Hey! I don’t have all day.”
What is happening? Uncle Neville sort of melts into the sparkling reflections…Made me think the sun is setting. Everything is suddenly replaced by a dull, gray nothingness joined by a very intense throbbing in my head and back. God, I hurt all over. It’s gray because my eyes are shut. There is light somewhere out there beyond my eyelids. A low, moan escapes my lips coming from deep in my chest.
“Well finally. I thought you were never gonna come to!”
This voice is not my Uncle Neville. It’s outside my body. I can feel a bed under me. The sheet is pulled tight. I try to roll onto my side. More pain. I open my eyes very carefully. The light is too bright. I blink, trying to find my face with numb-feeling hands and fingers. There is someone sitting close to the bedside. I try to focus.
“Good morning…a little late, but better late than never.” The voice says.
It's Evencoe! Through half-open, watering eyes, I finally put the voice and the person in the chair beside me together. Evencoe, who I believed had died. “You’re alive?”
He laughs, “More or less.” He leans forward to press his hand on my shoulder. “It seems we were both…sort of quick frozen…or at least so cold that nothing degenerated. They were able to thaw us out and restart our hearts.”
“Is that why I hurt so much?”
“Yeah, it goes away with a little therapy. Be glad you hurt, it means you’re alive.”
I roll back through a sharp burst of protesting muscles. “Uuhh…I’ll take your word for it. I had this really weird dream about a nurse trying to feed me, and I got sick and…”
Evencoe laughs again, “That was no dream. They told me you were awake, but when I came down here, you were out cold. Excuse the reference.”
“I…I threw up the food she gave me. God, it was awful.” I struggle to sit up.
“Here, I can boost you up.” Evencoe at the foot of the bed, touches a button or something that moves the bed into a lounge-like position.
He returns to his chair, pulling it closer. “They’ll work that out in just a couple sessions.”
“Evencoe…where the hell are we? Who are these people?”
He leans closer, lowering his voice, “Old buddy, I haven’t got the faintest idea. I’ve asked, but it’s a forbidden subject. They get real unhappy about any kind of questions.”
“Do you know where we are?”
“All I know is that we’re still underground. I think the heat is fusion powered, and the air is pumped in…or recycled. There are no names or labels on anything. It’s weird. The people don’t seem to use names either.”
“Maybe that’s good. I can still be Raymond Cooper…like before.”
His look is startled, “What? You’ve always been Raymond or Ray.”
“For this assignment, yes. But I don’t know what kind of access to national databases these people might have. Standard procedure is to run DNA, blood, and iris IDs, you know.”
“I suppose I should be hurt. You didn’t trust me.”
“No, I do trust you…with my life. It’s just that if I were to tell you…they could force it out of you. It’s just too dangerous. I’m Raymond Cooper. Let’s leave it at that…OK?”
“I guess we’ll have to,” he sighs, standing up “I have to go now, it’s almost 2:30.”
“In the afternoon?”
“No, it’s night. I have my therapy at 2:30 AM. This place runs on a 28 hour cycle.” Stopping at the door, he says, “I’m glad you’re back, Ray. Remember, it’s better to not ask questions.”
And he’s gone, leaving me in this colorless, empty room staring at four blank walls—except for the clock mounted on the wall above my head. “28 hours, huh?” I stare at the blanket, which is the same color as the room, until I realize it‘s the same color as the egg yokes, which is why when I upchucked the breakfast, some of it is still stuck on the blanket, but invisible.
I close my eyes, drifting back to pleasanter times; home with Mom and Dad when I was a boy. The old house, so clean and warm, sitting out there on the point of land where the two rivers joined. I hated it as a young man, mud flats and willows—but now, it’s the most beautiful, peaceful place I’ve ever been.
I must have dozed off again. I didn’t hear them come into the room. Their whispers broke into my dreams. Voices! That means company. I run my secret paths through the trees and deep, hanging branches. If I could just get home. Mom will be needing me. Company always made her nervous.
The pain in my arm is sharp and sudden. My eyes blink open to see the man pulling back the hypodermic in his hand. Deep-set, pale eyes, hair and skin make the tall, gaunt man with the high cheekbones sort of fuzz into the background. He doesn’t apologize or explain what he’d just shot me with, but rather turns to the other white-jacketed men in the room.
“He’ll be cooperative in about 10 minutes, gentlemen, if you’d like to get some coffee or refreshment in the meantime.” He waves toward the door.
I try to see them all, but the images double and waver. One second I’m home running through the willow paths…and then I’m here. Where? Which part is the dream?
Bemused by the drug, I linger somewhere between that peaceful point of land between the junction of the two rivers and the colorless room with the four men in white coats and their pale, narrow faces.
The questions they must have asked me, I don’t remember. Did I give them information? That I seriously doubt. My years of programming would allow them only the false history of Dillard, and perhaps the over-layer of Raymond Campbell. My biggest concern is that I might have revealed something about Evencoe. I manage to get out of the bed before I’m sick again. God, my guts hurt. Even my eyelids hurt.