“Trans-humeral biomechanical prostheses. In layman’s terms, now you don’t have to put up with a lost arm.”
Marceline dropped the pen she had been fidgeting with while explaining her idea. She tried to catch it without success, each clack of the falling pen straining her composure. She leaned down from her chair in a clumsy attempt to recover it.
“While enthralling…” Dr. Harris began as he looked to the leaning Marceline in dismay, “… your idea is still firmly planted on the land of imagination, Mrs. Lydell; I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to support it in front of the committee. Have you shown this to Dr. Granger?” Dr. Harris said, watching over his half-frame glasses as a father would look at his daughter while she tried to sell him a trip alone with her friends to some foreign paradise.
Marceline straightened up with haste, having failed to recover the pen.
She shuddered. The mere thought of what the obnoxious Dr. Granger had to say about her work nauseated her. Marceline knew what her opinion on the whole project was: “Crude and tasteless” were the closing remarks of her last review. She hated the self-satisfied smirk that drew on Dr. Granger’sface as she turned down her project; Marceline was sure she enjoyed it more each time.
She shook her head.
“She lacks the necessary vision. I do know there are still technological hurdles, most notably the energy requirements. But… try to look past the present and think long term.” Her hand movements intensified. “This research and the requirements can be done simultaneously! Once the energy and material advancements are done, we can be at least twenty years ahead of everyone else in the area!”
She slammed her hand on the table, as if to accentuate her point.
The waiter interrupted, handing the bill to Dr. Harris. He examined the bill and reached for his wallet, paying it in full.
“I’m sorry, my dear Marceline,” Dr. Harris said as he removed his glasses, “but I can’t back this project if you can’t get at least two members to consider it. You know for a fact that the committee will not support long-term projects right now, especially those with such a high level of uncertainty. Your age and gender are not helping either.”
She removed her trembling hand from the table. Are you really this dense? This can help thousands and make you rich in the process… she thought, attempting to regain control of her temper before speaking again.
“I’m not that young,” she blurted, almost rolling her eyes. Unless it’s relative to your age, she thought.
“Don’t be crass dear. I’m sure there are other projects for which your talents would be more than welcome,” he said as he stood up and grabbed his coat. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another appointment to attend.”
He wished her good luck, put his hat on, and left. Marceline thanked him without looking up.
She stayed on her chair a few more minutes. Not again, she thought, glancing at the tray with bills stacked over it. She bent down once more without leaving her chair to grab the fallen pen, considering breaking it in half. Deciding against added drama, she took a deep breath and stowed it in the side pocket of her briefcase. She stood up, put on her coat, and headed out to the nearest underground station.
It hadn’t been the best day for Marceline. The tube was crowded as always. People rushed around her, paying no mind to her small frame. Glancing at her wristwatch, she sighed, tightened the grip on her briefcase and pushed onward.
Even with her brisk pace, the exit of the narrow passage to the platform appeared to move farther away. It made her anxious. Missing the train would mean waiting at least half an hour for the next one. Missing the train would mean no dinner again.
The constant rubbing and pushing from the sea of bodies around her irked her to no end. Engineering will isolate you from human contact… all lies, she thought.
As the crowd dwindled in the expanse of the platform, she returned to her senses; the flooding light of the new platform made her squint for a moment. The train lights were not yet in sight, and according to the clock hanging from the ceiling, she had a few minutes to spare. She sighed in relief.
The respite and change of scenery helped her mind refocus on the recent restoration of the place. She looked up at the clock once more. Ten past six. Realizing there was still time, she removed the glove of her right hand, never letting go of her briefcase. She felt the restored elements of the station with her naked hand.
The texture of the painted walls was still mush, reminiscent of when she first arrived in London. It’s been six years… What am I lacking? she lamented, already knowing that the answer was not something she could easily fix.
The grey tiling remained unblemished as she stroked the walls with her finger. The brushed stainless steel of the handrails gleamed, as if challenging someone to stain them. She drew a soft smile as she felt the changing textures and temperatures through her fingers.
She skimmed the walls of the platform, still touching and skimming through the advertisements:
“Abbey Road – New Beatles LP Here Now.”
“Give CAPSTAN this Christmas.”
Among other adverts to minor plays and concerts.
No scratches she could see or feel; no signs of cloudy spots present in the glass that protected some of the banners. A new machining process, it seems, she thought. She could easily focus on her reflection and not the advert behind it. It spoke of a life still free of vandals, not unlike her project proposals a few years back.
She reached the end of the platform, returning from her thoughts. Her finger was just barely stained. She turned around and walked toward the train trackstrench.
“Mind The Gap,” a sign read nearby.
Next to the sign, six amber eyes glanced at the people waiting for the train from the darkness of the tunnel. She caught a glimpse of them as they turned to her, dropping her glove in surprise.
She instinctively crouched to pick it up, glancing back at the tunnel once she recovered it.
The eyes were gone.
She couldn’t believe them to be the product of stress, so she stood there, blinking fast and peering into the tunnel. There were only the rails fading into darkness.
Shivering for a moment, she carefully placed her briefcase on the floor and donned her glove once again. Recovering some of her composure, she walked to a pair of men nearby, never fully turning her back to the tunnel.
As she stood next to them, the one furthest away noticed and leaned forward slightly to see her clearly from beside the first man.
“Are you alright, miss?” he asked with a concerned look. “You seem a bit… distressed.”
“I’m quite fine, thank you very much,” she answered in a clipped tone as she clutched the briefcase tightly to her chest, still exchanging glances between him and the tunnel. It was hard for her to not look at the man. He was an uncommon sight, with slicked-down, dirty blonde hair, and wearing a charcoal grey, English-cut suit. Tailored, of course, and emanating a radiance which could only be found in the happiest of brides.
A striped dark grey and silver tie matched the black leather gloves and shoes that rounded off his outfit. He carried a bouquet of violet tulips, cradled in his arms so as to minimize the impact to the petals, and he had their roots wrapped in a bag with a moist towel. It sure is an important day for this fellow, she thought.
The man closest to her turned his eyes to her, then to the briefcase, then back to the other side of the platform, never moving his rigid face. She caught him in her peripheral vision, not wanting to look at him directly. Taller than the second man but not as good looking, he was olive skinned, broad and square, with small features and close-set eyes. He wore a grey flat-cap, a plain shirt with a brown leather jacket, denim trousers and brown shoes. He had his hands firmly inside the jacket.
The handsome man stood up straight once again, towering over her and forcing her to look up. “It’s a wonderful day, though,” he said to no one in particular, smiling. “These aren’t for you, miss, but…” he said as he carefully removed one of the tulips from the bouquet. “But… I’m sure she wouldn’t mind sharing one with a lady who is upset.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed. So he is taken, yet offers flowers to random girls in the underground? She thought, somewhat annoyed, but she blushed and toyed with her braid unconsciously for a moment. The man waited with his arm stretched for a gesture that never came.
Marceline grabbed her briefcase with both hands and looked at the offered tulip without saying a word, then back up at him with a frown.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m just trying to help,” he clarified.
She didn’t move for a few awkward seconds, forcing him to place the tulip back into the bouquet.
He smiled again. “That sounded better in my head. Do excuse me, I didn’t mean to further upset you, miss.” He gave a small nod to her and returned to his original place, waiting for the train next to the first man.
With the encounter over, she turned once more to the tunnel, still somewhat perplexed by what she had just seen.
At last, the train could be heard closing in at a distance. It was a sound that soothed her. Relaxing, she lowered the briefcase and clutched it back in one hand, her gaze returning to the soon-to-be-illuminated tunnel entrance.
For a few seconds, her mind was blank. A precious moment of freedom she didn’t fully perceive.
The first man caught upon her distraction with an unnoticeable peek and, with a quick turn, tried to snatch her briefcase. The suitcase handle was not as low quality as he expected, for it didn’t break.
Of all the problems she had that day, petty theft was the most stupid.
With a distraught look, she faced the would-be thief while gripping the handle and balancing against the pull. Her surprise slowed her perception of time as her arm flailed like a ribbon in the wind with each pull of the thief. She couldn’t comprehend what was happening, or why she couldn’t let it go.
The handle finally cracked and detached itself, throwing the thief and Marceline off balance. He tripped over the bouqet man, causing both of them to fall down near the edge of the platform. The bouquet was knocked away from them and smashed near the wall, breaking some of the tulips. The briefcase followed with a dry thud.
A voice echoed through the platform “Mind the gap,” a message to which Marceline barely paid attention.
She had just found a target for her pent up anger, kicking the thief who was still on the ground.
“Just who–do you think you are–you filthy–maggot!” she yelled at him as she kicked him again and again, until the thief managed to catch Marceline’s ankle, throwing her off balance. She stumbled towards the wall of the platform, but didn’t fall.
Free from the thrashing, the thief used this moment to stand up once again.
But as formidable as he appeared, he was being just as clumsy as Marceline. He almost fell again when the bouquet man grabbed his hand to try and stand. The thief smacked him with his elbow, and the already disoriented bouquet man clinged to the thief even harder.
Marceline had recovered by then, pushing away anyone who attempted to restrain her. Thrusting all her weight into a single, lousy punch to the thief’s face, she connected with enough force for him to lose his footing. The thief grabbed the bouquet man in an attempt to keep standing, but only managed to pull them both into the rail trench.
The incoming train had already illuminated the tunnel. Her perception of time was coming back to normal and she looked around in urgency. Some of the onlookers had stepped back. One valiant guy was already going near the edge to try and help the men, but nobody dared to jump inside. The train attempted to brake, but they were so close to the mouth of the tunnel that it made little difference.
“Mind the gap,” the recording repeated.
The sound that followed caused Marceline to fall to her knees. It was quick: a thud in between the screeches of a braking train and a pair of disappearing human figures.
She stayed there, open mouthed and petrified.
For a few seconds, only the gasps of the onlookers could be heard, followed by screams as the train came to a complete stop halfway into the station. Her body froze as tears swelled in her eyes. She brought her hands to her mouth unconsciously, trying to quell a scream that could not find a way out.
The world wobbled around her. She was light-headed; everything was nauseating, blurry. People began to encircle the area. Some called for help.
She took a few steps back as more people closed in. She turned around, holding her hands out, trying to keep her balance while keeping people away from her. Someone pointed at her, but she didn’t mind.
She couldn’t breathe, her sight impaired and her body began to numb. The urge to get away kept her walking with increasing instability fighting against the numbness. She didn’t stop, heading back into the nearest archway where she had entered the platform.
There were no more people around. Six amber eyes appeared once again in the darkened path in front of her. Only this time, they were fixated on her. The lights above her flickered for a moment as each pair of eyes blinked out of sync.
She turned to her left, the only way away from the eyes and the accident, and went up the stairs hoping to find an exit to the surface. Her mind was going blank while her body tried to cope with all that had just happened. She could only run, drifting for time unknown.
She continued running until an antique looking steel door blocked her path. It brought some of her senses back, if only for the fact that it looked so out of place.
She realized she had been alone for a while now, which was strange in the underground, looking around for people, anyone. Clearing her tears, she noticed that the whole architecture was different. Stilland underground passageway in geometry, but the details and materials were unlike anything she had seen before.
It was reminiscent of an ancient industrial section. Rust permeated the pipes, steel plates, rivets and welding tacks. Each tack and rivet had a carving akin to a seal, from which white, uniform light emanated. There were no incandescent lights, the path lit only by the pipes.
The pipes emitted the same white light from all its unrusted surfaces, unlike the rivets. It was weird, for she had never seen artificial light coming from anything other than a warm, yellowish bulb. The door had a similar style, with cogs and small rails that enabled it to open sideways, but with the emblem engraved by its center.
Her mind welcomed the small distraction. She studied the design, her curiosity already more than an instinct. The door had neither a handle nor a visible locking mechanism. She sobbed as she inspected the door. Her emotions from the earlier episode barely contained.
She followed the bevel of the design with her gloved finger. The material was cold and stopped emitting light where her finger touched. When her finger touched the middle point, the door slid open, with seamless movement of its cogs. It was elegant, making almost no noise despite its rowdy appearance.
Behind it was a dimly lit, spacious room, capable of fitting at least a row of four king size beds. She went inside driven by the even weirder interior. The floor and walls were all riveted, steel-like plates. They also had the strange glowing seal carved into them. The walls were curved, converging on top and making the whole room spherical. The lower wall sections tapered with what seemed to be surgical instruments, organized by size.
The room was illuminated by a single tube that encircled the ceiling. She stopped at the middle of the round room, gazing upwards to the center plate that had the same distinct seal as the rivets. This one didn’t glow, though, but was made from a finer material. There was another door to her left, identical to the one behind.
To her right was a table not unlike the ones used by surgeons, but outfitted with tools you find in a workbench. A vise was attached to its side, and what it held protruded from the symmetric shape.
She moved closer for a better look as her sight was still hazy, filled with unreleased tears. Fueled by raw curiosity and instinct but still sobbing, she walked with a slow, careful pace.
The details of the table drew clearer with every step. A beige blanket hid whatever was on it, and she didn’t care enough to check. What the vise held, however, was exposed. Its grip tightened around the upper par of an arm that had no owner. It was cut uncleanly by the forearm, still dripping blood. The hand was stiff and half clenched.
At the same time, the second door glided with the same smooth bearing as the one she went through. She turned her attention from the vide when an unintelligible muttering broke the silence. It had a relaxed ring to it, as if gleefully asking a string of questions to an old acquaintance. She rubbed her eyes, clearing some of the tears that muddied her vision.
It was a creature, similar in size to a medium dog. It had big turquoise eyes and a large muzzle, with a feeble smile drawn with a row of fangs by its cheeks. It stood on its hind legs, resembling a squirrel or a lemur. Her tears prevented her from discerning any other features.
The creature didn’t notice the motionless Marceline and kept walking toward the table. She watched it saunter, now muttering a happy tune. When the creature noticed her, its tone changed from glee to contempt as their gazes met. It went from singing to yelling at her in an unintelligible language, with a deeper pitch than the one she would have expected from such a small creature.
It was unreal, yet not enough to jolt her back from the trance she was in, her mind still clogged by what had happened.
She walked towards the creature, heedless of the consequences.
As she approached, its expression transitioned from contempt to genuine terror. It stopped yelling and began hissing at her, bristling like a cat. She was at last close enough to get the creature in focus. Nothing was remarkable except for the fact that she had never before seen a creature who so gallantly wore a monocle and gracefully wielded a scalpel with its tail…
Screaming at the top of her lungs, she fled, running back to the platform. As she ran, she didn’t notice the new linearity of the path. It now had neither forks nor stairs, just the entrance to the platform by the end of the narrow passage.
She crossed the archway once again. Her stride ended, barely able to keep standing as the adrenaline diminished. She leaned on the wall, closing her eyes and clenched her teeth, all to try and keep the tears back for a few more seconds as her mind pieced everything together.
She gazed at the few petals that had broken from the tulips. The briefcase and the bouquet laid silent on the floor, the only witnesses left.
She moved closer and dropped to her knees near the bouquet, a fresh sob bursting from her and tears finally running down.
For what seemed like hours, no one had come.
Raising her head from between her knees, she knew it was real. She could recognize a dream, by the time dilation, or the quick, successive changes in scenery and cast. To her, the mind couldn’t create and keep a constant world of its own for long.
This was different.
She could try and deny the reality of it all and keep crying, hoping for it to go away. Or she could do something.
She ordered herself in a low voice.