r e t u r n

a sharp hiss, something pops behind my eyes flashbang searing white heat smoke
























the chamber. I’m in the chamber.


“Jesus FUCK!”




I’ve got about sixty seconds before this thing goes earthquake mode and I come out







My only hope is that I’m somewhere, anywhere, that you are, too.


I’m almost there, baby.


My hands go to work on the straps, adjusting the loops for my arms, then I’m sitting. My feet are locked in. Left wrist, secure. Slide in the right, lean.



Fuck. This was easier at home.


So my right wrist isn’t completely secured. What’s the worst that could happen?


My eyes are flooded with stop-motion frames: man being ripped apart. Man in pieces. Walls covered in blood. Chunks. of. Parts. of. Hair. of. Teeth. Of. Gnashing.

of me.

Fuck. I try again. My teeth catch the strap and I jerk my neck back hard.




The chamber is silent. As in, completely.

No noise. Anechoic.





n    o    t    h    i    n     g




Sweat rolling down my forehead is what I’m feeling. My heart racing. Bump-bump-bump in my ears.


Baby. Please. If you can hear me, hold on.


If this is the last time I die, will I know?

If it was permanent, would I remember







My jaw clicks. Teeth grinding. Any second.

Any second I’m going to fffffffffff e e l




I feel






























































































h    h

h h h h h h h h h


My hands won’t stop shaking.

Gordon’s pacing—although honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to call it that, at this point—like he’s trying to formulate a new methodology for setting the carpet on fire with nothing but intricate choreography. His living room is immaculately clean, to the point of sterility. I’m not wearing shoes.

It’s that clean in here.

I drove a hundred and ten miles an hour through the city all the way here.

And my hands won’t stop shaking.

For the last twenty minutes, Gordon has been pacing back and forth in front of the sofa where he kindly insisted I sit, muttering the same two or three words over and over.

“I’m fucked. I. Am. Fucked. I’m fucked!

“Listen, I know it sounds crazy, but—”

“Crazy?” I think he’s trying to smile at me, but honestly, it just looks like showing teeth. “Crazy would be if we walked up to Dr. Soliman’s office, pulled out a gun and said, ‘Good morning, Dr. Soliman, I’m having trouble killing myself today. Would you mind to help me out? Oh, and while you’re at it, I’d like to use your office.'”

He’s right. That would be pretty crazy.

“What you’re talking about doing is completely and totally FUCKED!”

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was going to break out in tears.

Gordon rocks back and forth as he walks, his body hinged at the waist like a stiff doll; the nightmare Christmas Toy creation of an autistic-savant-designer-turned-terminal-crackhead.

“I’ll tell you,” he says, completing his seventy-fourth lap around the coffee table, “but you have to swear to me you won’t try anything stupid. Just get the video from the archive and get out.”

My plan flashes behind my eyes:

  1. Connect remotely to the Praxem SecureBridge packet and download the server keys.
  2. Create a query in the system to allow access to the building after hours, coded to my employee ID.
  3. Tell the security guard I left my wallet in my office the day before, and
  4. Use my security credentials to bypass monitoring in the archive room. That’s where they keep encrypted copies of the video footage from the cameras in the observation rooms.
  5. Use Gordon’s access code (which he is very close to giving me) to get into the observation deck.
  6. Blastoff…


“Gordon, I promise. Listen, man….”



I’ll see you soon, baby.

I love you.


The locking mechanism on the inside of the door disengages and the door opens gravely. A white hazmat steps inside the slim opening, checks a screen on its wrist. Shuts the door and re-engages the lock. Turns to face me. Anterior LEDs on the suit’s hood throw Alice blue cones of light across the tech’s face. Gordon Bailey looks at me with the same concerned mask he always wears.

“Mr. Tessler,” he says with a nod.

“Gordon. We’ve been over this,” I say, craning my neck from side to side. Another wave of nausea hits and I have to swallow hard to keep from gagging. “It’s Mason. Just Mason. Not ‘Mr. Tessler.’ I’m filing an audit on your personnel file.”

“Go ahead.” He steps over to the left side of the chair and fiddles with the strap on my wrist. “You’ll be wasting your time. My record is impeccable. Been here six years, never missed a day of work. I’ve never even been late.”

My lungs spasm. A raspy cough produces dark strings of sputum that hang like wet hair from my chin. “Jesus.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Just a little residual phlegm from the transfer. The vibrations break up a lot of the mucus in the lobar bronchi.”

“No,” I manage to wheeze. “It’s not that. You just really need to get laid.”

“You’re a sick man, Mr. Tessler.”

A feeble laugh quickly turns into a coughing fit. “That’s it, I’m recommending a department transfer. How does ‘Assistant to the Senior Maintenance Technician‘ sound?”

Gordon laughs. It’s a good laugh. Kind. Nothing forced about it. When he smiles I think of Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters. I can see the anti-glare lenses of his glasses fogging inside the suit hood when he breathes. He’s the kind of kid I would’ve bullied in high school.

Because I would’ve felt stupid by comparison.

He frees my second wrist and puts a hand under my arm. “Come up slow. Easy. That’s good. How do you feel?”


“That seems appropriate, considering.”

“I’ve got new tags.” He unzips a hip pocket and pulls out a plastic freezer bag. Hands it over. Inside is my debrief journal and a No. 2 pencil. I toss the freezer bag on the chair and flip to the page marked with a thin red ribbon. My handwriting scrawled across the header:


I’ve included the most common waking symptoms in shorthand at the top:

N (nausea)     H (headache)     S (seizure)     P (paralysis)     D (delusions)
DYS (dysrhythmia)     SD (sensory dampening)

I put a circle around nausea and leave it at that. There’s a dull pain at the base of my spine, but that should wear off in a few minutes. Not worth mentioning here. Just more for the techs to worry about when they review the journal entry later.

On the left, I’ve written the test number (163) and prepared two possible outcomes:

pass          fail

I circle fail.

“Any big changes this time?” Gordon’s voice dies in the anechoic room, but in my head the sound bounces like a pinball.


“Nothing at all?”

“I said no.”

“Alright, alright. Just double checking. We had a few spikes on the tape.”


Tape: (n.) slang

1. The physical printout from an EEG showing real-time neural activity.
2. Any similar trial readings printed during or after the test.


Flash on a reel of images. Elevator. Baby. Letters. Door. Parking lot. Condom. Candles. Security gate. Screaming.

A thunderflash erupts behind my eyes.

The film lasts two, maybe three seconds. Gordon’s got his back to me. Good thing, since I’m doubled over pushing the heels of my hands into my ears. My face feels wet. Waves of cold washing over my skin. The room turns. Gordon’s voice is distant, warped. Like hearing it through the blades of a very large fan.

“I thhhhhiiink doooctoooor Soooolimmmmman wants wants wants wants toooo giiiiive y                o                          u