Author: Janice Rothganger

Subject 9581 swam against the waves, edging nearer to her objective with each stroke. Salt water crusted her lips. The storm surge pulled her away, then forced her tantalizingly close to the buoy. The marker bobbed in the ocean. It was topped with a flashing amber light to guide her in, if she could just get to it. She reached again…

An alarm sounded in the distance. Initially, Subject 9581 thought it was the fog horn of a distant ship. But when it rang again, she recognized it as her wake-up call. She had failed her mission; they would order yet another sleep cycle.

“Do you remember anything significant?” she was quizzed at the debriefing. Her answer was always the same: she swam further than the previous night, but still could not reach the buoy before she was awakened. The captain’s response was always the same. Inject her with one more milligram, and allow her five more minutes of sleep.

When subject 9581 began the mission, the morning alarm was set for 3:30. Tomorrow’s alarm would go off at precisely 6:20 a.m. Her R.E.M. sleep had gradually shifted with her changing sleep patterns, but still she failed.

Subject 9581 jumped from the platform into the raging sea, just as she had done the past twenty-two nights. Her flotation device was cumbersome, so she took it off. t bounced annoyingly in front of her before finally disappearing into the waves. This happened in every dream since the first night. Distance placards spaced at 1-kilometer intervals noted her progress. The buoy was precisely 55 kilometers from the platform. On her maiden attempt, Subject 9581 advanced just 12 kilometers when the alarm sounded. It would be two weeks before the buoy ever came into sight.

Salt water drew her lips tight and threatened to seal her eyelids shut. As hard as she had fought against the ocean, the elements were striking more blows against her. She scraped the hardened deposits from her face. Through bleary eyes she made out the faint outline of the next marker. Number 52. She would succeed this time. And then she was yanked back to land by the alarm that sounded like a distant ship.

Debriefed. No changes. One more milligram. Set tomorrow’s alarm for 6:25.

Subject 9581 plunged into the ocean, doffed her life jacket, and battled the storm surges. Her mouth and eyes were mercilessly attacked. She ignored the distance markers, focusing only on her swim strokes. The amber light flashed against the sea foam but she was still over 15 kilometers from her objective. Subject 9581 exchanged violent blows with Mother Nature. She was thrust forward and hauled back. The thin tissue around her mouth and eyes bled as she scraped them clean.

Unable to ignore it any longer, she looked for a placard. Number 52, the same as last night. She reasoned that she only had another five minutes, ten at the most. She dug her arms into the surf and thrashed her legs. A storm surge propelled her beyond the 54-kilometer mark. The buoy was within her grasp. She touched it, wrapped her arms around it, and fastened her harness to it. The surge reversed itself, toppling the buoy and pressing Subject 9581 under the waves. Brutal salt water invaded her lungs. Somewhere above, the wake-up alarm sounded. But under the weight of the sea, Subject 9581 heard only the sound of her last breath bubbling from her lips.

The captain bellowed, “Damn it, we’ve lost another one. Get 9582 in here, stat!”