I open my eyes and am immediately disoriented by impenetrable darkness all around me. My eyes cannot detect a single speck of light anywhere to focus upon. I feel the first low-level stirrings of panic begin to simmer within my mind.
I close my eyes again, for no other reason other than there is no point whatsoever in having them open. However, my closed eyes bring all of my other senses into sharper focus. I begin to become aware of the lack of feeling of space around me. My initial sensations are frighteningly confirmed moments later when I try to stretch out my arms at my sides. The backs of my hands encounter solid resistance just inches from my hips.
I try to throw my hands up to my face and feel them solidly connect with something over me. Frantic groping around as best I am able confirms what I suspected: I am fully enclosed in box-like structure! A low moan escapes me as my body begins to tremble from head to foot. Oh, dear God, what on Earth was going on?
I’m not dead, I know that. I don’t feel dead: I am conscious of my breathing, the weight of my body on the hardness under me and of the solidity around and over me. Although I had never been dead before I was fairly certain - without good reason - that it would feel different to how I actually felt. That thought offered the most minuscule crumb of comfort I had experienced since I had opened my eyes. It beggared the question “how had I ended up where I was?” I didn’t have an immediate answer.
I was breathing too fast, almost hyper-ventilating, and the air in the box was becoming uncomfortably warm and, if I’m being honest, a little smelly. There was the unmistakable aroma of garlic in the box with an underlying small of onions and other spices. A memory stirred at the back of my mind; a restaurant with friends, laughter music and the sociable clink of glasses raised in a toast. The memory blazed brightly for several moments before flickering out and leaving me in darkness once again. I willed my mind to replay the images but succeeded only in causing my head to start throbbing uncomfortably. I sighed and willed myself to relax and just think. After all, I had to work out two important issues: how I had come to be in the box in the first place and, more importantly, how I was going to get out of it.
The effort of thinking, the underlying stress and fear due to my situation made clear and rational thought near impossible. Jumbled, jagged fragments of thoughts, memories and ideas crashed and tumbled into and over one another like a mental Niagara Falls. It was all too much to process and my mind, overwhelmed and under intense stress, shut itself off from the rest of my body and I slept.
If I dreamt I had no recollection of doing so when I regained consciousness. It did not feel like awakening from sleep as one might do after a good night’s rest in a comfortable king-size bed adorned with fine bed-linen and the softest of down-filled duvets. This was more of a creeping awareness through various synapses firing in the brain to restore wakefulness to an otherwise near-comatose body. I had no way of gauging how long I had been ‘out’. It could have been a only few seconds; equally it could have been days. I intuitively felt that I’d slept for as little as a few minutes, although if pressed I could not have given a sound reason why. It just felt right, that’s all.
I was still no closer to understanding what had brought me to this position. I did a mental scan of the various parts of my body to see if there was any clue to be had there. Disappointingly I appeared to be in good health, aside from the dull ache in my head caused by the stale air I was breathing and having to think so damn much. On the plus side, I reasoned, I could rule out accidental interment as a cause of my situation. I was well known for my fear of being buried alive and anybody who was anybody who knew me also knew, should I lose my life unexpectedly, that I was to have a cremation funeral. The fact that I was not a pile of ash in a urn somewhere was a positive sign that my life was not quite done with just yet.
All this positivity still didn’t bring me any closer to understanding why I was where I was. Not only that, I was becoming extremely uncomfortable, my headache was worsening by the second and I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic, which was a new sensation for me. Another memory flickered across my mind, one of being a child of maybe four years and hiding away at the back of a dark cupboard during a game of hide-and-seek with my sisters. My father found me more than forty minutes later, curled into a ball and sound asleep without a care in the world. My mother, I remembered, was not quite so easily mollified and declared the said cupboard totally out-of-bounds for future games of that nature.
Given my present circumstances I would have welcomed my long-deceased mother's worried scowl if only to relieve the creeping sense of tightness that was overcoming me. The unremitting darkness, the warmth and the stale air were all serving to make me feel more miserable and afraid by the passing second. I thumped the sides of the crate out of frustration... and realised that my hands touched, not the rough wood I had expected, but the smoothness of fabric. For a couple of heartbeats my brain refused to function as my consciousness tried to absorb the meaning of what had just happened.
How had I not realised before? How could I have lain here, felt all around myself and failed to recognise the unmistakable feel of silk on my exploring fingertips? How was that even possible? I barked a rather dry, humourless laugh. I must have been in a worse state than I'd originally thought, I told myself as I ran my hands around the sides, bottom and top of whatever it was I was laying in and confirmed that I was, indeed, laying on and was surrounded by silk.
The word popped into my head unbidden. A coffin. That's what I was laying in. There was no other explanation. What other object of this size would be silk-lined? My heart began to beat faster, I began to breathe harder as sweat broke out all over my body.
"Oh, fuck! Oh Jesus. Oh Mary, mother of Christ!" I bleated breathlessly.
After all my precautions, after all my preparations, after all my ensuring that people knew about my dread of being buried alive - the medical name for which is Taphophobia my anxiety-raddled brain recalled - in spite of all that, it had happened! I was lying in a fucking coffin! Not dead, but buried alive!
It was at that point my rational brain went into hibernation and survival mode took over me. I began to scream and shout and pound with my hands and feet hysterically, desperately, frantically, at the lid and sides of the coffin, the noise of my terrified voice deafening to me in those silk-lined confines.
I was sure that I was dying and that it was only a matter of time before the air -stale and unpleasant as it was - ran out and I would surely suffer a slow and lingering death. I was going to fight that eventuality with every ounce of strength that my ailing body possessed, even if it meant using up that same air more quickly and hastening my eventual demise.
Suddenly - miraculously - my ordeal was ended. Somebody had heard me somehow, it seemed. The coffin lid was removed and a face I knew well loomed above me. It was etched with concern. I saw the lips moving but heard no words. I could still hear panicked screaming and I realised that it was my own voice I could hear. A massive arm holding what appeared to be an improbably-sized hypodermic syringe reached into the coffin. A second later, through my terrified haze, I felt a sharp sting on my arm and my world almost immediately went dark.
"Welcome back, Doctor Stevenson"
The voice belonged to my research assistant, Amelia Chalmers.
"Melly!" I sighed. Christ, I felt tired. "What...?"
"It's alright, Doctor. You're fine now. You are perfectly safe. Just sleep. You need to rest" Amelia told me in a professional soothing tone. It was not unlike the one I used with my patients at times. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to slip back into the comforting embrace of the velvet blackness the jab that had been administered to me before had sent me.
When I awoke for the second time it was noticeably later. The half-light of dusk made the indicator light of the various items of beeping and whirring medical equipment seem much brighter than usual.
Amelia had been replaced at my bedside by Doctor Trudy Staples, fellow research scientist, one-time lover and the best poker player on the research team. Her inscrutable face looked at various notations on the patient chart attached to a clipboard that hung off the end of my bed.
"Will I live?" I croaked in what I tried to make sound like a light-hearted quip.
"Of course you will." Trudy Staples snapped. "You only had a bloody panic attack" she added sharply.
A panic attack?
"I thought I had been buried alive." I whispered. "Could I have a drop of water?"
Without answering Trudy poured a tumbler of lukewarm water into a standard hospital-issue plastic glass. She held it against my lips as I sipped gratefully at the tepid fluid.
"You were hallucinating in there." she said, placing the glass on the bedside cabinet. "That hasn't happened before."
That much was true. I'd had mild feelings of not-being-quite-there before due to sensory disorientation caused by the lack of a focal point for my eyes. The hallucinations were new - and a bad sign.
"It was nothing." I lied. "It must have had something to do with the stale air screwing around with my senses; some sort of hypoxia, perhaps?"
If there was one thing that Doctor Trudy had a quick sense for was bullshit. The expression on her face told me she was detecting a large dose of the stuff right at that moment.
"How long did I manage this time?" I asked to change the topic. I was already starting to feel much more like my normal self.
"Forty hours, thirty-seven minutes and forty-two seconds." Trudy intoned. "Two hours and eleven minutes less than last time." she added. "What went wrong?"
That was the million-dollar question. And I didn't have a million-dollars worth of an answer.
My company, Stasis Research and Development, was engaged in developing transportation systems for the long-distance exploratory space flight programmes of the future. Some of those programmes would take years for the spacecraft and its passengers to reach their destination. It was the opinion of the best brains in the business and in space exploration that stasis - slowing or stopping the normal flow of a bodily fluid or slowing of the current of circulating blood - was the way to overcome the incredibly long time future astronauts would have to spend essentially whiling away, not just hours and days, but whole years at a time.
So far, our experiments had not been wholly enlightening or particularly successful. My 'meltdown' earlier was a major setback. Not only had I failed to remain in a state of chemically-induced deep sleep for more than forty hours - less than two days! - I had mistaken my luxuriously appointed Stasis Capsule for a real coffin and had freaked out, embarrassingly so.
The Stasis Capsule design had been deliberately based upon the standard coffin shape for one sole reason: as a item of design it was difficult to beat. Voices of doubt and concern had been raised but I had exerted my authority and plowed ahead with the shape. I was the boss and the prime mover behind the project after all. After what had happened to me this time, though, maybe it was time to listen again to other design propositions?
"I really could not tell you, Trudy." I said resignedly. " We look at all the data, make whatever adjustments we can and try once more. That's all we can do. We'll try again tomorrow."
We glanced tiredly at one another. We had walked this way many times already and would do so many more times until we either achieved our aim or died trying. It's what we were meant to do.