By Loulou Szal
Saphira looked behind her at Fraklin. He watched, his expression eager, almost hungry, as he waited for her to take the final leap, the plunge that would help change life as they all knew it and write a completely new history for mankind.
Which would it be?
Step off the plank into oblivion or into eternal fame?
Fame; she didn’t concern herself with that, but oblivion? That was something else, but worth plunging in for?
At any rate, at least into the history books, one way or another.
It was the first time anyone had leapt into the Confinement Abyss.
What a contradiction in terms!
She shifted her glance over to Franklin; the hyperactive genius she had worked alongside these past two weeks. He believed in his scheme, that his calculations of quantum physics would succeed. Franklin believed she could do this and so Saphira believed it too.
She had to. Mankind had so few choices left.
She spread her arms out to the side as though she was about to take a swan dive, which, in fact, she was.
The jump required perfection, someone with precise mental and physical synchronisation. It was a one chance jump and only Saphira could take it. She was a high diver from long ago. From an aeon ago when she had been taken by her parents to swim-training lessons and diving coaching because they had believed, like everyone else on the planet, that a flooding of the Earth was inevitable.
The Polar ice caps were 31.3% melted. So many coastlines were underwater already, resulting in countless beautiful natural habitats that had disappeared forever as the Earth’s population packed up and moved further and further inland toward drier, more arid habitats, where farming and grazing became frequently more challenging.
The time to save what was left of the earth was fast counting down and she had to do her part in making sure the countdown did not reach zero.
Saphira had come to the attention of Franklin when he had turned up at the Science Department Gymnasium. He had been secretly looking to recruit someone who could dive and he had sat down quietly in a corner and watched as his fellow scientists took advantage of the mandatory rule requiring all associates to put in an hour of physical training a day. Optimum fitness was a requirement of employment at the Space and Aeronautics Department of the U.N.
A camera wired to the main frame computer checked off a member’s visit and subsequent exercise regime by laser-scanning facial features and feeding the information into the main frame of the Space and Aeronautics Department’s Computer-Analysis-System Enabler or SAD-CASE as it was affectionately known.
It also served as a high tech security system, since entry to the Department was strictly controlled and monitored.
Franklin used his swipe card to enter the gym/pool area then he sat. He asked no questions and sought no advice. He knew what he needed.
His attention had focused on Saphira almost immediately.
After an intense day of observation, Saphira was approached, interviewed and recruited under the strictest conditions of confidentiality. Security checks, finger prints, signed documents one after the other. Then instruction and practice then more practice till both she and Franklin had no doubts about her ability to complete this simple, yet life-changing mission. Here she was, about to take the dive that could save Earth and all life on it.
Saphira bent and the plank bent with her. She began her personal pattern of three bounces that ended with the final leap.
A deep breath, a one word prayer; “Please!” and she leapt up and out.
Like an albatross, arms extended, she seemed to hover over the blue abyss for a split second before she pulled her head and shoulders downward. She spotted the dark blue centre of the cloudy whorl below her in the Confinement Abyss.
Saphira brought her finger tips together and aimed them at the centre of the blue whorl, bent her head between her shoulders so that her upper arms were pressing against her ears. Another deep breath…she had to hit dead centre or was over…
WHOOSH! Straight in!
No splash, no wetness, nothing but the cold, exactly as Franklin and described. Icy cold due to the Void being the space between spaces.
It had worked and she was alive. Saphira had performed the perfect manoeuvre. Franklin’s calculations had been correct.
Saphira spun out of her dive, curling into a ball and willing herself to stop the tumbling, which was a result of the momentum of her dive, coming out into another atmosphere. It took a few seconds to slow down in the weightless atmosphere of the Abyss, because it wasn’t like diving into water, it was more like the lack of gravity found in space. An in-between or a semi-gravity as Franklin had called it. It was the first semi-gravity known to exist and Saphira was the first person to ever experience it.
Franklin’s instructions circled her mind with every tumble turn she took….
“You will slow down; there is only partial anti-gravity down there. Open your eyes and search the Void. Spot the Echalon. You may have to swim toward it.”
Saphira opened her eyes and found herself facing the whorl she had dove through, its edges settling back into circular motion since she had dove through and disrupted them.
Got to find the ECHELON and get back out,’ she whispered to herself. She took another deep breath but this one was harder to take, the air was thinner and required twice the effort of a normal breath to pull into her lungs. She knew it would be, Franklin had said so. She also knew she would be able to take about a dozen of those constricting breaths before her chest would tighten and she would get light-headed and dizzy.
A week of high altitude training up on the sheer cliffs of the Swiss Alps had prepared her for it…but only for a few minutes of it. She shouldn’t need to be in the Containment Void for longer than that.
Slowly Saphira turned her head and looked about. Light-blue void everywhere, endless. She couldn’t tell how far distance was because there were no markers, no scale of visuals to go by.
The Echelon was small, she knew that. About the size of an automotive rotor button. Made by the use of Spectrocopy; a diffraction grating used in the resolution of fine structured lines that consist of a series of plates of equal thickness and stacked in stair-case-like mode. Hence the name. Saphira had been sent to retrieve the Echelon, the mechanical masterpiece and lynch-pin of Franklin’s phenomenal concept; Time Travel through Space.
With the Echelon, Franklin could bend space, just as you or I fold a sheet of paper to allow both ends to touch.
He could bring together two points in space that were one Light Year apart and he could bend the outer points to allow travel from one end to the other in one literal twenty four hour period.
It was the realisation of a twenty year project and it was finally coming to fruition.
Finally possible, with the Echelon.
Saphira cursed Redmond, the disgruntled scientist who had thwarted Franklin’s plans by breaking into the lab, stealing the Echelon and NOT keeping it or hiding himself away. Instead, Redmond had actually hurled the Echelon into the Confinement Abyss that he and Franklin had originally created and built together inside the actual Space and Aeronautics Department lab. Redmond had even signed over his rights to the project a year before. “Strapped for cash,” had been his excuse.
Franklin had continued the research alone, fiercely determined to see the project through, knowing he was close, before Redmond had realised his own miscalculation; that he would have been richer had he waited and seen the project through, but Franklin had become unapproachable by then and the end was in sight, Franklin’s sight, alone.
Redmond had used his contacts and old pass-key to enter the lab, disconnect the Echelon and like a disgruntled child, hurl the Echelon into the Abyss and on into infinity. Redmond had disappeared and could not be found. Federal agents were searching for him.
Saphira turned her head around and down before she spied the Echelon floating a little way away, just out of her reach. She instinctively knew she would have to do breast stroke to reach it.
She took a deep breath. Franklin’s words replayed in her head. “You’ll have the opportunity to take about a dozen shallow breaths at the most,” he had explained. “After that the compressed oxygen in the vortex will create in you an effect similar to that of ‘the bends’.” “Like when surfacing too quickly after scuba diving?” Saphira had questioned.
“Exactly. So speed is critical in this Saphira. Ninety to two hundred seconds is all you have before you must resurface the Vortex. If, due to some undetermined miscalculation of mine, the Echelon isn’t down there…well, there is nothing more we can do and you, you simply must come back Saphira, that’s all. Just return safely.”
Not usually prone to great shows of emotion from Franklin, Saphira had appreciated the intense squeeze of her arm he had given before standing back, red faced.
His expression had been so dejected, so utterly without hope at the thought of any failure after having come so far that Saphira had doubled her determination to retrieve the Echelon at all costs. She did a slow motion tumble turn so that she was upside down. It was hard, working in semi-gravity. The Vortex also rearranged other properties; Oxygen levels, Carbon Dioxide, refraction of light…
With frog-like movements Saphira inched closer but for all the physical energy she exerted, the resulting movement was minimal by comparison. She guessed a ratio of 5:2. Five being the effort.
Another push, then another… She had also counted four breaths since she had entered the Vortex. Franklin had given her a couple of condensed oxygen capsules in case she needed them, they would give her a further three breaths each.
Time to execute the mission. She inched her arm forward, her fingers stretching outward toward the tiny mechanism. But with each forward push the molecules of air, so much less densely packed together than molecules in normal oxygen, would create a wind channel in the vacant semi-gravitational atmosphere and the result was that the Echelon simply spun further away from her grasping hand.
Could do with a magnet,’ Saphira thought in frustration. Without a second to lose she spread her fingers to lessen the impact on the loose molecules and placed her hands above and below the Echelon so that her arms made the lines of a great V shape. With her right hand she made a slow, controlled upward movement so that the piece of machinery drifted upwards, pushed, without being touched, straight into her waiting left palm.
“Got it!” she exclaimed. The only words she would speak out loud as sound could disrupt the balance of the Vortex at that point and the aim had been to keep the atmosphere controlled and as calm as possible.
Speech also depleted your oxygen supply.
Saphira gripped the Echelon tightly; it was icy cold against her skin. She brought the piece to her waist and pushed it inside a tiny compartment inside her skin-suit. She pulled the zipper closed and felt for the precious Echelon against her body to reassure herself, then turned and faced the ceiling of the Vortex.
Back the way she had come. She began swimming upward in the blue, semi-airless void and knew at the same time that her breathing was laboured. Not wanting to stop for an oxygen capsule she used her arms to swim upward toward the whorl and back toward her real world.
Saphira stretched and reached for the whirling blue escape hole. If only she had something against which to lever herself. One great leap or push of propulsion and she could re-surface like a missile, straight up through the restrictive atmosphere she fought against.
Light refracted differently in the Containment Vortex, it bent and bent again looking for a solid surface to bounce off and because the Vortex contained no such physical element, the light could not obey the natural laws of nature. Saphira therefore knew she was swimming toward the entrance of the vortex but she could not differentiate how close or how far she was from the surface.
Perhaps she had somersaulted more than she realised when she had entered the void.
No matter. She had the Echelon and that was the aim of the mission.
She kept grasping, reaching for the entrance and a rising panic in her throat made her sub-consciously reach for the oxygen capsule in her collar-pocket.
Best to be on the safe-side, she thought. If she fainted from a lack of oxygen, her life would be over and the same could be said for the rest of mankind. She unzipped the small pouch embedded in the collar of her space-dive suit and extracted one large capsule, being careful to keep the other two capsules inside. She looked at it, it was as half the size of her thumb. Huge.
But, she only had to crack it open with her teeth, not swallow the thing. As she did that, the shot of cold, compressed air filled her mouth as it spurted through the hair-line crack she made through the tough resinous casing.
Keeping the casing beneath her tongue, Saphira managed a long, deep intake of properly proportioned H2O. What a relief to be able to breathe properly, even for a few breaths only.
Saphira meanwhile continued to swim upward. She confidently believed the opening within reach as she pushed on, fingers spread toward the whorl. Her finger tips disappeared through it and she knew then that she had reached the summit.
Subconsciously she observed a small pink-ish tinge in the otherwise blue void. It was placed somewhere above, to her right. It seemed to expand and fade, expand and fade as she made her way up. She must be close to the surface if she could see colour as refracted light, but her befuddled, oxygen starved mind could not decipher what could be causing it.
Her natural instinct was to continue reaching up. Franklin was to pass a mechanised handle-bar over the centre of the whirling mass so she could take hold of it and be hoisted straight up through the exact centre of the whorl without any difficulty.
What she felt in its place, was a strong human grasp that entwined her fingers. Instead of pulling her up, the fingers exerted a pressure on her hand and she felt herself begin to slip back into the void.
She opened her mouth to call out in protest but all she emitted was a moan that came seconds after she had called out. What was worse was the loss of precious oxygen that escaped her open mouth, to atomise then diffuse into the outside thinner atmosphere.
Saphira was only semi-conscious of this as she struggled to grasp the fingers that pushed her back, as someone tried to loosen her grip.
‘Franklin!’ Her mind screamed. ‘Stop!’
Saphira managed one great push upward, using the power of her legs in a forceful kick. As she moved upward she thought she saw, through the misty swirling whorl, the angry face of Redmond. He lay across the swing, holding it precariously with one hand, while the other he used to shove her back into the Vortex.
Saphira’s survival instinct kicked in. She stopped grasping for Redmond’s fingers, instead she reached up as she thrust forward, and snatched at his wrist. Her head broke the surface as she did so and as she faced Redmond angrily, she gasped for a precious lung full of air. In that split second, as she kept her focus on Redmond, Saphira used her peripheral vision to scan to her right, toward the diving tower.
She registered Franklin’s inert body there, motionless and collapsed over the side of the Confinement Abyss. One arm extended out over the liquid, his outstretched fingers dropping great dollops of red blood into the Vortex pool.
Saphira’s brain comprehended what had happened and the new, imminent danger she was in.
In that instant a desperate, adrenalin-fuelled resolution vaulted into Saphira’s mind. Her fingers locked over Redmond’s wrist, she then straightened up as an arrow and used her free arm to push herself back down below the whorl, dragging the precariously balanced and now shocked Redmond, with her into the Vortex.
Redmond tumbled in head first, the expression on his face like an ancient painting she had once seen, called The scream.
Saphira used her body’s momentum against Redmond’s changed weight balance as he entered the new atmosphere. She pulled him with all her strength, still upside down, away and past her body, and then pushed him so that he kept the momentum as his arms and legs flayed about, he spun and slew away from her without control.
Saphira didn’t take the time to watch him; the adrenalin rush she had experienced had used up her oxygen so that she as dizzy again. She made another kick upward to recover the distance she had lost.
One more thrust and she should clear the whorl exit. The intensity of the whole experiment, although having only taken a few minutes in reality began to feel like hours had gone by and Saphira felt that she had been running a marathon. She automatically reached in to the pouch on the side of her collar and pulled out her second oxygen capsule. She was about to pop it into her mouth when a sharp tug on her leg pulled her down before she closed her teeth around it, so that the capsule was left spinning in the semi-gravity. Saphira looked down to see a desperate Redmond trying to climb up her body to the exit for leverage.
Both Saphira and Redmond were short on oxygen and desperate for the capsule. As Saphira reached for it, the capsule spun away due to the momentum of the far-spaced molecules in the atmosphere. She felt Redmond’s heavy grasp on her waist as he levered himself higher in an attempt to get to the capsule himself or, at least to hinder Saphira from getting it.
She began to kick at Redmond, closing her eyes and lashing out. She knew there was virtually no air left in the Vortex and he would not last long if she could keep him down or grapple with him so that his adrenalin caused him to breathe faster and therefore make him breathless, sooner.
As she kicked at him she reached inside her collar pouch for the last oxygen capsule. She spun away from Redmond so that he could not see what she was doing, but he knew. He had designed the suit himself, a year before.
With a maniacal roar he spun Saphira about and reached for her arms to pull them away from her collar. He was far stronger than Saphira and his grip was like a pincer as he squeezed her and dug his fingers into her body for leverage. Redmond got hold of her right forearm and wrenched it away from her body, his face red from the exertion he made and she wondered which of them would faint first, from lack of oxygen.
He seemed willing to die, as long as he prevented Saphira from returning to the surface with the Echelon. His eyes were beginning to bulge with the strain. He was hoping to weigh her down as a last resort and then perhaps they would die together.
In a final burst of adrenalin, Saphira summed up her reserves of energy, spread apart her forefinger and middle finger of her left hand and pushing against the semi- gravity, struck her fingers hard into Redmond’s bulging eye-sockets.
She saw him scream then heard the sound carried along a second later. It was eerie, like a howl; long, low and inhuman as Franklin lost his grip on Saphira and brought his hands up to cover his eyes.
Saphira brought up her legs and levering herself in the air, placed the heel of her boots against the top of Redmond’s head and pushed off and up. The result for Redmond was that he shot downwards into the blue oblivion, his arms and legs flaying madly as he spun away, becoming smaller and smaller beneath her.
Desperate for air, her vision blurry, Saphira reached for the capsule inside her collar, she missed the zipper, began to weakly grope for the small tab. Once she had it between her fingertips it seemed the zip was too heavy to budge. She pulled and pulled at it, her head rolled backwards as she lost the strength to hold it up and still she pulled at the zipper. A moment later she heard the latent scraping sound of the mechanism opening.
Her lungs burned, a second after she pulled out the capsule and shoved it into her mouth. The immediate relief barely noticeable as she crunched on the casing and sucked in the cool, pure oxygen.
She choked on the air as it burned through her oesophagus. She coughed and expelled the capsule in the process, but the one shot of air she had been able to suck down was enough to rejuvenate her equilibrium for the next moment when she turned her face upward and focused on the whorl, it was within reach again. She hauled her arm up and pushed it toward the dark centre.
Her hand went through it. Her fingers groped the outside atmosphere as she again began to lose consciousness.
She grasped nothing. Her fingers began to curl inward, her arm dropping back as she closed her eyes and began to lose consciousness.
In her dying dream, she felt a great pull on her limbs but by that time could not tell in which direction she was moving, nor did she care.
Franklin’s face came into focus for only a split second before an oxygen mask was strapped to her face. The oxygen cold and forceful, pushing into her nostrils and making her breathe in. Inhale, exhale; what a simple, beautiful experience it was. Saphira smiled weakly as she lay and luxuriated in life’s most precious oxygen.
“Franklin?” she pushed the words out of her mouth relieved to hear them reverberate.
“Saphira,” came an urgent whisper in her ear. “I’m here and you did it, you saved the Echalon!” Glee trickled through his words to her grateful ear. He moved into Saphira’s line of vision. She saw him, a grin spread from ear to ear.
Saphira took a deep breath. “Redmond…” she didn’t know how to ask it or even explain it.
“Gone,” was Franklin’s simple reply. “He must have hidden in the ceiling vent of this lab the whole time, watching and waiting. He jumped down when he saw you returning. He attacked …” Franklin couldn’t finish, but he raised his bandaged arm so that Saphira could see the damage for herself.
Saphira removed the mask from her face and slowly sat up. She felt better but was sorry for Franklin.
He knew her well enough to know her thoughts were for him.
“Saphira,” he spoke her name with reverential respect. “You are the one. You will go down in the annals of history. The earth will recuperate because you have made it possible.”
Saphira shook her head in denial. “No Franklin, you and I have made it possible. You and I.”