Terminal Blues

Terminal Blues

Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)
FictionFictionJourneys into unfamiliar worlds, imagined futures, and altered states of mind.

I hear the little ski plane sliding down outside and I put on all my shirts and three pairs of pants to shield myself from the cold. I have one arm in my coat when already the pilot is banging on the door, eager to drop off the stuff and get flying. Sometimes I pull the door latch and it’s bright outside. Other times it’s dark. This time it’s raw light in every direction, like the pilot stepped out of a flash bulb. No matter how hard I squint, I can’t see his face, just the goggles, the fuzzy hat, and the smile that makes me think of cracked ice.

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The recruiter called this place a secure research facility, which sounds like a big deal, but it’s not. The facility is more like a trailer with a cot and desk on one end and a kitchen/lounge/bathroom on the other. My assignment is to monitor the situation in the world for eighteen months. What the situation is, I’m not sure. How long I’ve been here, I’m not sure. I lost track around month fourteen but that’s what the recruiter said my assignment was and I have no reason to believe that I’ve stopped.

Once every hour for sixteen hours a day, the radio by my cot buzzes on and a woman’s voice recites a series of figures. My task is to listen to the figures and write them down and enter them into the computer terminal on the desk. In the beginning, the numbers were very small. I could complete my task in fifteen minutes or so and would have the rest of the hour to use as I please, napping or journaling or thinking about Edward. Now the numbers are big. I barely have time to type them all in before the radio starts buzzing again.

My colleague sends me messages through the chat system on the terminal. I don’t know where my colleague is. Somewhere warm, I hope. I ask them what they think of the numbers. “Not good,” says my colleague, “worse every day.” I agree with them but secretly I don’t know if the numbers are good or bad. Maybe the numbers are all the people we know are okay? Secretly I think no one’s okay.

The pilot is supposed to take my laundry in addition to bringing me food and essentials but he refuses to take the laundry. When I try to give it to him he says, “Not my problem.” He says it like it’s a TV catchphrase and when he does I pause so the studio audience can laugh. I know I’m not on TV but sometimes I think this is an experiment or some kind of test. Maybe they’re learning how long a person can be by themselves without going cuckoo and my assignment will take us to Mars. Maybe I died in a plane crash and this is just what it’s like when you’re dead.

When I’m feeling real lonesome I try to remember all the reasons I took the assignment. I signed up because I’m a patriot. I signed up because I love science! I signed up because Edward said it was an opportunity and I signed up because no one did the right thing when they should have and I signed up because there was nothing left to do. I write the reasons down like I’m writing this down. I read them later and I’m like, “What is this?”

The facility doesn’t have any windows, just the heavy door on the cot/desk end like you’d see on a walk-in freezer. I’m only supposed to open it for the pilot, who’s supposed to take the laundry he won’t take in addition to bringing me food and essentials. I wash my clothes in the kitchen/lounge/bathroom sink but no matter how long I leave them by the heater they never get dry. They never get dry and then they get funky and then my clothes stink worse all the time.

I’m writing down the radio woman’s numbers and this time the last figure is six hundred and sixty-three. I put down my pen and feel real sad because I’m sure now that Edward is gone. Sixty-three was the code he used for everything. I didn’t ask him what it meant and then we weren’t talking and then we were talking again and then I left for the facility so I guess I’ll never know. I remember a time before the situation when me and Edward went picnic shopping. I did something funny with the grapes while he typed in his debit card code and then he chuckled and said, “You’re crazy.” Maybe that never happened. Maybe there never was a time before the situation. I write down all the reasons I loved him but I can’t remember what they were so instead I just write down “goodbye.”

Secretly I start pretending that my colleague is other people, like Edward or the pilot or my mom. I ask them if I’m loved like I used to ask mom but all they say is: “Let’s stay focused, okay?” That’s what they say whenever I ask about anything but the numbers. When I ask about the numbers all they say is: “Not good.”

I break the radio down into tiny pieces and now I have all the time in the world to use as I please. It’s against my assignment for sure but I don’t see anyone here to stop me. When the mood strikes me I put my own numbers into the terminal, ones that secretly mean something special. Six-three for Edward, of course. Six-one-oh-two, the address of the home I grew up in. Oh-four-one-three, that’s the day that mom died. The day I left for the facility, I’m not sure. How long I’ve been here, I’m not sure. My clothes stink worse all the time.

I know my colleague can’t be mom or Edward but are they the pilot or what who’s to say? I drop hints that the game is up, tell them, “I like your fuzzy hat” or “why won’t you take my laundry” or “I know you’re the pilot you piece of shit answer me right now.” No matter what, my colleague tells me to stay focussed like I’m not focussed on something which is finding out who the fuck they are.

I hear the little ski plane sliding down outside and I put on all my shirts and three pairs of pants and I’ve never been so excited in my life. This time I’m going to give the pilot the business, let him know that I know what’s been going on. I can see now that it’s all been a test, even before the situation and the facility and the numbers that might be good or bad. Even before Edward or me or my mom. I only wish I saw it before everything went wrong.

I pull the door latch and I’m ready to let him have it, tell the pilot that all people have is each other and I love him like a parent loves a child whether they’re here or gone. I pull the door latch and I’m ready to give him the business but it’s just dark, dark in every direction, and then I hear the roar of the plane crash that’s like the world using its voice for the very first time.

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DISCUSSION

Once every hour for sixteen hours a day, the radio by my cot buzzes on and a woman’s voice recites a series of figures. My task is to listen to the figures and write them down and enter them into the computer terminal on the desk.”

Why does this sound so familiar?