Chapter 01. Permanent affairs
“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 straining her composure. She leaned from her chair in a clumsy attempt to recover it.
“While enthralling, 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 her daughter as 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 made her nauseous. Marceline knew what she thought about her whole project: “Crude and untasteful” were the closing remarks of her last review. She hated the self-satisfied smirk that drew on her face as she refused 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 grew excited “This research can be done in parallel to the requirements! Once the energy and material advancements are met, 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 slowly removed her trembling hand from the table, getting tired of rejections.”Are you really this dense? This can help thousands and make you rich in the process…”he thought, attempting to regain control of her temper before speaking again.
“I’m not that young,” she said, almost rolling her eyes. “Unless it’s relative to your age,” she thought.
“Please stay classy. I’m sure there are other projects in which your talent will be more than welcome,” he said as he stood up and grabbed his coat. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I´ve got a meeting to attend.”
He wished her good luck and left as he put his hat on. Marceline thanked him .unconvincingly
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 lost pen, considering breaking it in half to vent. Deciding against adding drama, she took a deep breath and stowed it in the side pocket of her briefcase. Standing up, she put on her coat and headed out to the nearest underground station.
It hadn’t been the best day for Marceline. The underground was, unsurprisingly, crowded. 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. This made her anxious; missing the train would mean waiting at least half an hour for the next one. No dinner for her again today if that happened
The constant rubbing and pushing was one of the reasons she became an engineer: to get more personal space.
She returned from her thoughts as the crowd dwindled in the expanse of the platform.
Recently restored, it shone in most areas and lacked the glamorous smell that characterized every other station. It was, in contrast to the former passage, flooded with light.
She sighed in relief. The train lights were not yet in sight and according to the clock hanging from the ceiling, she had a few minutes to spare.
The respite and scenery change helped her mind focus on the restoration of the place. Six years had passed since the last time she stood there, a younger girl with an idea, built upon dreams rather than working concepts. Even though it was wholly distinct, her mind still couldn’t figure just what her project kept lacking.
Everything was new, or appeared so. She removed the glove of her right hand in anticipation, never letting go of her briefcase.
It was one of her quirks, she liked touching things, but not being touched.
The texture of the paint felt still mush, reminiscent of when she first arrived to London. and the grey tiling unblemished as she stroked the walls with her finger. The brushed stainless steel of the handrails gleamed, challenging someone to dare and stain them.
She skimmed the walls of the platform, still touching and reading the advertisements with an absent mind.
“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. They spoke of a life yet free of vandals, not unlike her proposals a few years back.
She reached the end of the platform, returning from her thoughts. Her finger had barely become smeared. She turned around and walked toward the train trench.
“Mind The Gap,” a sign read nearby.
Next to the sign, she caught a glimpse of six amber eyes from the darkness of the tunnel. A sliver of light shone near them. They were fixed on the people waiting by the edge for the train.
The strange eyes noticed her gaze and turned to her. She dropped her glove in surprise, looking at it as it fell.
She instinctively crouched after it to pick it up, glancing at the tunnel again once she had grabbed it.
The eyes were gone. She couldn’t believe them to be the product of stress; so she stood there, trying to ascertain exactly what she had just seen. There were only the rails fading into darkness.
Shivering for a moment, she carefully placed her briefcase on the floor and gloved her hand 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 further away noticed and made a slight bow to see her clearly from beside the first man.
“Are you alright madam?” he said with a concerned look. “You seem a bit… distressed.”
“I’m quite fine, thank you very much,” she answered in a stern 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, for he was an uncommon sight. The radiance he had however, would not be as easily concealed.
He had slicked-down, dirty blonde hair and wore a charcoal grey, English-cut suit. Tailored, of course.
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 within his arms 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 to this lad.” She thought.
The closest man turned her 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 and even with the conversation going on around him.
The handsome man stood up straight once again. “It’s a wonderful day though,” he said to no one in particular, smiling. He moved closer to her, with a calm and elegant demeanor.
He towered over her, forcing her to look up.
“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 was dumbstruck as he presented it. “So he is taken, yet offers flowers to random girls in the underground?” she thought, somewhat annoyed, yet she blushed and nervously toyed with her braid. The man waited with his arm stretched for a reaction that never came.
Marceline grabbed her briefcase with both hands and silently looked at the offered tulip, then at him with a frown.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m just trying to help”
She didn’t move for a few awkward seconds, forcing him to place the tulip back into the bouquet.
He smiled again. “That came out wrong. 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 dismissed, 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 returned 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.
Among 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 wouldn’t let go.
The handle finally cracked and detached itself, throwing the thief and Marceline off balance. He tripped over the handsome man, causing both of them to fall down near the edge of the platform. The bouquet was knocked away from the men and smashed near the wall, breaking some of the tulips. The briefcase followed with a dry thud.
A voice echoed through the platfom “Mind the gap”. A message to which Marceline barely paid attention. She had finally 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 throw Marceline off balance by catching her ankle in his blind thrashing. She stumbled towards the platform’s wall, but didn’t fall. He used this moment to stand up once again.
As formidable as he appeared, he was being just as clumsy as Marceline. He almost lost his balance as the handsome man grabbed his hand to try and stand. The thief smacked him with his left elbow, causing the already disoriented man to cling to the thief even harder.
Marceline had recovered by then, pushing away someone who struggled to restrain her. Thrusting all her weight into a single, lousy punch to the thief’s face, she connected enough force for him to lose his footing. The thief tried to grab onto something to prevent his fall, pulling the handsome man with him into the rail trench.
What had just transpired began to register in her mind.
The incoming train had already illuminated the mouth of the tunnel and the curve behind it.
She looked around in urgency. Everything had happened so fast. Some of the onlookers had stepped back,. Others were already going near the edge to try and help the men. Nobody dared to jump inside as the train closed in. It attempted to brake; yet they were so close to the mouth of the tunnel it made little difference.
“Mind the gap,” the recording repeated.
The sound of crushing bones and exploding human flesh that followed caused Marceline to fall to her knees.
She sat there, open mouthed and petrified.
For a few seconds only the gasps of the onlookers could be heard; followed by screams. Her body froze and trembled with increased frequency 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 as she became light-headed; everything was nauseating. People began to encircle the area. Some called for help. Everything became a blur around her.
She took a few steps back as everyone closed in. She turned around, holding her hands out, trying to keep her balance and people away from her. Someone pointed at her, but she didn’t mind.
She couldn’t breathe. Her sight blurred as all of her body began to turn numb. The urge to get away kept her walking with an increasing instability. She didn’t stop in spite of it and headed back into the archway where she had entered the platform.
She noticed the six amber eyes 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 of the eyes blinked out of sync.
She turned to her left and went up the stairs. Her mind was going blank and her body trying to cope with all that had just happened. She could only run, drifting for time unknown.
She continued 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.
Clearing her tears, she noticed that the whole architecture was already different. Still the underground in concept, but the details and materials were unlike anything she could trivially find.
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, yet the path was lit by some of the pipes. They emitted the same white light from their entire visible frame, 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 almost habitually; her curiosity already more than an instinct. The door had neither a handle nor a visible locking mechanism. She sobbed unconsciously, her emotions from the earlier episode barely contained.
She followed the bevel of the design with her gloved finger. Even if not directly, the material was cold and stopped emitting light as her finger moved on its surface.It reacted to her touch and slid, 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 beds. She continued inside without thinking. The floor and walls were all riveted steel plates. They had the strange glowing seal carved into them too. The walls were curved, which made the whole room spherical. They were 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 analogous to the ones used by surgeons, but outfitted with tools proper of a workbench. A vise was attached to its side and what it held protruded from the symmetric shape.
Her sight still was hazy, filled with unreleased tears. She moved closer, fueled by raw curiosity. Her mind still clogged, shielding itself from new stimuli. She meandered toward the table, still sobbing, 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 an arm that had no owner. It was cut uncleanly by the forearm, still dripping blood. The hand was stiff and half clenched, perpendicular to the room.
The second door glided with the same smooth bearing as the one she originally went through. She turned 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, smaller than a medium sized dog. It had big turquoise eyes and a large muzzle, with a feeble smile drawn by its cheeks and a visible row of fangs. It stood on its hind legs, resembling a squirrel or a lemur. She couldn’t yet discern other features due to her still limited vision.
The creature didn’t notice the motionless Marceline and kept walking toward the table. She watched it saunter, now muttering a happy tune. The creature finally noticed her, exchanging gazes, its tone went from glee to contempt in seconds. 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 it was not enough to jolt her back from the trance she was in; her mind still overburdened by what had happened. She walked towards the creature heedless of the consequences. As she walked, its expression transitioned from contempt to genuine terror. As she closed in, 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 the fact that she had never seen a creatur before 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 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 clenching 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 to what had happened.
She moved closer and dropped to her knees near them.With a final sob, she began to cry.
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 start doing something.
After looking around, she noticed the bouquet to be within reach and the briefcase just a few steps away from it.She picked up the bouquet, stood up and looked at the reflection on the glass panel once more.
She had never looked so scared.