You find yourself walking towards a different section of the Omni-Testing Facility now, to its deeper colder bowels, where the Isolation Test will begin shortly. You are scheduled for 1 p.m. sharp. You are somewhat early and there is little to distract yourself with in the empty and very poorly-lit waiting room. Other than the faint ornate whirring noise coming from your yet-to-be-properly adjusted arm there is no other sound save for your own breathing, heavy in anticipation. There are some rumors among the candidates that this Test tends to separate one batch of Test Astronauts from the others, but how exactly is anyone’s guess.
1 p.m. sharp, the door opens and with steam and light pouring outside, two burly men clad in facility personnel overalls emerge dragging a limp old man, head down, feet dragging from behind. Did they accept candidates this old? The form said something along the lines of 20 to 45 as far as age was concerned. No matter. You’re up.
The room outside the waiting area is not much bigger but is littered with what appear to be some sort of capsules. Each with their own hazmat-suited statue, peering at the occasional screen to check on data.
“Ah, you must be 36-8-B, the one with the new arm”, you can just barely understand through the muffled noises of one gas-masked facility worker. “This will be your chamber for the next 4 hours,” he points to a vacant capsule. “Have you heard anything related to this test phase so far?”
“No, not really, I just figured it would be something more difficult, but waiting for 4 hours doesn’t sound that bad, considering what I’ve been through so far.”
The gas-masked technician might almost be smiling, judging from the creases around his eyes, but they might just be wrinkles of happier, different times.
“Bad is not exactly the right term for it, but different, yes, indeed, very very different, unlike anything you’ve experienced so far,” the sealed man muffles.“Now, please enter the chamber. At some point you will feel a slight sting as the needle administers the accurate dosage based on body-mass index and metabolism. After which you can just relax and… take your time.”
The last three words seem to linger more than they should in your mind. The hatch-door closes and is sealed shut after several turns of the wheel. A small prick in your left wrist announces the start of another boring test-phase.
The capsule starts to slowly fill with vapors, they feel cool on your skin and breeze through your clothes, small tendrils of almost blue smoke just barely graze your chin, soon they will envelop you. You close your eyes, from somewhere deep inside your brain you can almost feel a surge of electricity, and a deep piercing pain courses you, your hairs stand on their ends, skin gathers goose-bumps. You open your eyes again expecting to convulse and writhe in anguish, but nothing happens. All is still, the tendrils of smoke just beneath your chin a sea of faded blue toffee, swirls no longer, but is frozen. You try to look around only to discover that you can’t!
“What is going on!” you would scream if you could, but again, nothing happens as thoughts course through your mind and bounce off the thin layers of your skull in brownian motion, only to rebound at an ever increasing rate to the conclusion that, yes, the flow of time is simply no more.
Thoughts, your own thoughts, seem to surpass the trappings of time and so you turn you eyes inward, towards all the choices that have led to you to this point of absolute mute stillness.
You let the thought sink in and permeate your skin and much like a stone statue, you only stare dumbfounded ahead into the visor of the capsule.
In what seems to be a span of days just staring blankly ahead you remember all the mishaps and failures of efforts past, all the spurned desires and aborted plans for change, the pain of losing your loved ones, the void and scars they left behind. The regret of accepting that no, you are not prime aviation material, we’re very sorry to inform you, no, no matter how many sleepless nights you will toil away hidden in the cramped attic loft, the end sum of all your collated research on centrifugal tidal forces is equal to Zero, as the Grant Approval Committee already went with a different applicant this year, but do try again, no, rent is due now, you failed researcher, no, we cannot at this time approve your request for a personal loan, no, no no.
You would scream, how you would scream, if only you could, as man always does when left to his own devices and realises just how inexorably pitiful and pathetic he is in the much grander state of things in the Universe. In this case though, time or the extension of it by which humans experience it is lost to you, the maddening dread of it all closing in on you in pitch black streams until you’re drowning in ink inside a bottle.
You open your eyes, you seem to be sitting on a stool, your legs can’t reach the floor so you just let them dangle. Just a bit to your right you hear a sliding sound, fsssshhhh, it goes at a rhythmic pace, your nose itches ever so slightly from the smell of sawdust, wood being sanded down made smoother. Slowly the figure ahead of you becomes clearer, rough tanned wrinkled arms start from one end of a wooden pole and make their way to the other with deft movements.
“Eh?! What do you think boy? Want to give it a try?”
The old man hands a sanding cloth, you touch it, it feels rough, abrasive in your delicate child-sized hands, you shake your head, at a loss of what to respond and you give it back to the old man. He picks it gingerly from your hand.
“Well you’ll be here for a while kid, what do you wanna do in the meantime, can’t just sit there all day! Your mom is going to give me an earful if she finds out I let you dawdle all day without anything to do. So what do you wanna try then?”. The old man in striking resemblance of your late Grandpa looks at you attentively through bushy unkempt eyebrows.
You feel your face warming up so you look away, you look at the many shelves lining up the walls, almost reaching the rafters of this small cosy workshop. Glancing over the many baubles and trinkets, your eyes lock onto one singular item: a tiny ship, inside a glass.
How could it be in there? Makes no sense, you wonder as you reach your index finger in its direction.
“Oh, you want to try building a ship in a bottle eh? Well your hands are small enough to handle pliers at least.”
He gets a ladder and places the bottle in your hands. You tinker with the bottle, trying to see where it separates in half, but you see nothing out of the ordinary. It is smooth and clear. Inside the bottle is an old ship, with sails, but no crew. You peer closely. The level of detail seems unreal, there has to be a trick to it.
“Aha! I thought I had another set of these lying around”. The old man places a box with the image of an imposing ship before you. ”Now this ship design here is thousands of years old, it’s a galley! See there the long pole with the sail on it? That is called the mast and there is only one of it on this kind of ship. And see the tens of little sticks pouring out of it? Now those are paddles, and depending on the time period they were either manned by free-men, sailors, pirates, pillagers or slaves.” He pauses.
“Now point being, what makes this type of ship so unique is its sleek long hull and really low draft, and the fact that because it had so many rows of paddles that meant it was never really at the mercy of the winds and could move extremely precisely.”
“So here, try assembling it on your own, take your time” he says, and pauses for a longer while. “Nothing worth building is built faster than it needs to be built. It takes time, patience and a pair of skilled hands and some brains. Now go on then, show me what that ship really looks like.” He pats you on the head and resumes his woodworking activity, leaving you eager but also confused.
The parts are divided in sections in their little respective bags. You put them aside and slowly, methodically start putting the main deck from the bow. Then you make your way to the back of the ship carefully put together tiny planks and seats for tiny people to eventually row the ship to great sights far away. Then you put the mast together, carefully handling the cloth of the sail and tying strings together to keep it steady as much as you can.
All this takes a lot of concentration and patience and there are times when you want to stop, not knowing what area misses which piece but then you realise the layers on which the old 14th century galley is built on and you understand. Slowly you press on, until the final piece is missing, the figure head, the torso of a man in armor with a spear in hand, piercing the way forward for the rest of the ship to follow. You set it into place and there it is, was it always supposed to be this big?
You look in awe at your own work. You want to show it to the old man, so you scamper over to him and tug at his pants. He peers over inquisitively.
“What is it? Need help? Let’s have a look.”
As he nears the ship that your own tiny hands have built he stops in his tracks in admiration.
“You know kid, I couldn’t have done it better myself.” One hand reaches and messes your hair after which he gently puts a hand covering your entire left shoulder and suddenly hugs you.
You can smell the sawdust on his clothes but it feels comforting even though your nose itches. And a new smell fills your nostrils, cold and somehow it stings, you open your eyes to see blue smoke pouring through the windows and from under the entrance door.
You mean to jump on the workbench but the old man still holds you to his chest.
“It’s ok kid, you did good,” he whispers and disappears in the ever-thickening cloud of blue vapor.
A stinging pain courses through your entire body, you break into spasms but you’re held tightly by metal bindings.Your head feels like it’s about to burst and you start shivering all-over, just as the gas-masked technician appears in front of you in the hatch door. He says nothing and his hands are akimbo. The pain subsides almost as quickly as it first came and is quickly replaced with a weariness unlike anything you’ve experienced so far. The bindings come off, you try to make a step forward and get out of the chair, but you stumble and are unable to control your footing.
The gas-masked technician catches you and supports your weight. He is helping carry you out.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, your brainwaves were the most stable I’ve seen yet. How were you able to process such a vast amount of time?!” You can’t really tell through the mask but he is showing genuine amazement. “More than 2 months frozen in one place! ”
“I… was… I was..building a ship, a galley…”
You feel your consciousness becoming looser and you let it drift. You pass out and enter perhaps the best sleep you’ve ever had since enrolling here.