Author : Rick Tobin

Routine tapping of useless, dilated, vestigial nostrils against thick glass…perhaps a hope for release. Considering death, but they won’t allow that. Not now. I swim to the tank bottom, again, praying someone, once human, will join me. I remember land life.

Sheila glowed at Elephant Butte Lake. Not an oasis, but watering holes in the high desert are blessings. Dust devils trashed our blue tent. We saved gear that didn’t fly off. “Just for one night,” I kept telling her, convinced that moonrise over sparse mesquite and rabbit brush would be worthwhile. We rested by sleepy firelight as three visitors arrived.

My first response was to shoo them away, but Sheila was ever empathetic, always reaching to anyone like lost puppies. The two men were older than we were and rough. I knew the signs of biker gangs frequenting Albuquerque. My old man was a truck driver for the feds when they built Manzano Peak base. He warned me about felons. They gathered around us, the two bikers on either side of me, as their pet whore sat behind Sheila. It seemed odd, until she grabbed Sheila’s chest and covered her mouth. The bookcases beside me rushed in, but I swiveled past, heading for the tent where my dad’s pepper gun was stashed under sleeping bags. He warned me about the curse, the black inlaid handle made from a meteorite. “It will never wound,” he scolded, as he passed it to me days before his entry into hospice.

They were already on me as I rolled out the pistol. It happened in seconds. Two dead men lay face down in grit and sand. My feet automatically sped toward the fire. Sheila’s throat was slit open before her attacker charged me. After that, it was a blur. I remember horrifying photos at the trial. It didn’t matter Sheila was dead…it was what I did. “Such inhumanity requires the death penalty.” By then I had already been beaten twice and knifed in jail, until confined in solitaire. DARPA people visited a week later, beginning my watery journey.

What did I have to lose? Military medical volunteers wouldn’t face the gas chamber. Soon I was underground near Dulce. Researchers tested me, took blood, and held rigorous exams. In a month, I was escorted to a brightly lit room with panels of lights monitored on a far wall. Unchained and lifted into a hexagonal booth made of thick Plexiglas, I saw perforations on stainless steel flooring, while above a fan whirred. The observers adjusted instruments and then pulled a throttle bar. A turbulence of red, blue and black particles exploded upward, spinning throughout the containment. Minute shards struck, and then invaded. I collapsed into darkness from excruciating pain.

My waking was dreadful. There was no air. The doctors and nurses above me held a dripping intubation hose as I flopped helplessly, choking. “Better move him in now,” directed the doctor. “There won’t be time for an adjustment. They’ll either work or not, but open air will kill him.”

The nurses rolled me over a plastic sheet I struggled on, and into a horse-trough sized tank. It bubbled with oxygen feeds. I found instant relief, but shock, as my lungs failed. I panicked; sure of drowning…but no…I felt my throat oscillating gently. I reached up with webbed fingers to discover gills wafting fresh water over their red surfaces. That was the beginning—proof an aquanaut soldier could be developed. The beginning, only they know how long ago, as I age with my land memories in this crystal bowl, alone, but alive.

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