"Are you sure about this?" asked Schneider. He wasn't wearing his trademark labcoat, just some shorts and a T-shirt with the phrase "f$%k Nobel, I'll make my own award" shoddily stamped on it, the 'N' in Nobel almost chipped out of existence.
"No, not by a long shot," replied Bob, his voice trailing off with a hint of anxiety. He kept fiddling around with his extravagantly bulbous red suit, nervously checking and re-checking seals, wristbands, valves and plugs. Schneider noticed what Bob was doing and gripped him by the shoulders pads, forcing Bob to make eye contact, an uncommon practice which almost everyone avoided.
"Don't. Touch. The Suit," said Schneider. His words carried strangely ominous undertones. He then smiled sharply, as if he had made a joke. The look on both their faces told them they knew it wasn't funny at all. Bob nodded his acknowledgement and stopped messing with the suit. Instead he sat motionless in The Chair, arms resting on its sides.
The slightly morose look on his face implied he might just as well have been shackled to that chair. The thought that he had actually done cartwheels when they'd told him he had been selected, brought a smile of irony to his face. But he still found it almost impossible to just sit tight and wait, so he repeated the same technique that had kept him calm throughout all the field testing: he started counting everything around him, once again.
There were forty-nine cooling lines, eighty-four power lines, one hundred and sixty-seven signal lines and twenty-three gaseous mixture lines. They were supported on two hundred and seventeen metal clips, poles, and columns. There was a metal grid with nine hundred and seventy-two panels, supporting the roof as well as the experiment's infrastructure.
There was himself, Schneider, fifty-seven technicians, thirteen PhD's, four Nobel-prize winners and two soon-to-be. All in all, seventy-eight people, or seventy-seven souls. Schneider insisted that he had sold his own to the devil. He always smiled every time he said that, a sight that always gave the impression he wasn't joking.
Bob gave up on counting the rest; it didn't seem to help this time around. This was the Big One, the real try, the make-or-break. He gave Schneider a wary look which went largely unnoticed. He then made a half-hearted attempt at bad humor, the sort which could only lead to nervous laughter at best:
"Hey! This Suit's a bit embarassing. Makes me look like Santa. What kind of impression would that make, eh? Shouldn't we have gone with something in, let's say, formal black?"
"It's the beryllium laminar coating on the outer two surface skins, Robert. There's no proper substitute for the photonic cohesion exhibited by quasi-crystallic beryllium films. I knew very little people actually read the technical documents, but I'd thought you'd be at least interested in the design outlines," said Schneider without pausing in his work. Bob rolled his eyes, realising he was trying to connect emotionally to someone who designed a robot as a pet when he was seven years old. He let out a sigh disquised as a deep exhale before replying unenthusiastically:
"It's supposed to be a joke, Kurt."
Schneider turned momentarily to smile at Bob, before adding:
"Well then, I hear black is out of fashion. Red, they say, is the new black."
And with that, he walked away briskly, focusing his attention on another mystifying calibration task, leaving bob to just sit and think what it would be like to be the first living man to experience the afterworld.
Bob's eyes wandered uncertainly before settling on the observation pane, a hundred feet away, and only three feet wide. It was large enough for the observers to gape into the Labyrinth, the Intrinsic Enthalpy Facility's pet name.
He suddenly deeply wished he could see Lisa behind that pane; but all the faces he could glimpse belonged to top brass; emotionless, unwavering, rigid. People that had no idea what all this was about, having simply been convinced that it was more than worth the money that could've bought them a mass-driver on the moon, or alternatively, a near-infinite supply of paperclips. They just wanted to see if Schneider would deliver the goods; the significance of what would be accomplished was totally lost on them.
Bob glimpsed the reflection of him on a cooling bank's chrome surface. The crisp touch of ice on his reflected image made him feel warm and comfortable inside the suit. His head though was still swimming in the haze from the drug soup he'd taken that morning. He called out to Schneider who was standing a dozen feet away, running last-minute diagnostics on yet another control panel himself:
"Uhm, Kurt? I think I'm nauseous."
"It's the tetra-di-cynocytin-based inhibitors. There's always some penta-thymo-ephedrin to counteract that, but it seems likely today you're a bit more anxious," replied Schneider coolly. He seemed to be handling everything as if this was just another dry run.
"I think I need some more of that ephedrin," said Bob somewhat weakly. Schneider shook his head slightly, indicating a terse 'no'. Bob tried to sound convincing when he said:
"I feel like throwing up."
"By all means, Robert. The Suit will administer fluids to balance the losses, nothing to worry."
Bob gave up, and started taking deep breaths with practiced self-discipline, forcing himself into a state of serene calmness. It was part of a well-rehearsed checklist, and quite contrary to his human, innate instinct of fear.
He ventured a look at the low-hung ceiling; the mess of cables, pipelines and ducts offering a dizzying spectacle. He continued his slow, deep, breathing pattern, muttering under his breath. When Schneider finished the last of his hands-on checks, he turned his attention on the Chair with renewed vigor. He noticed Bob had his eyes closed, mumbling inaudibly.
"Say it out loud if it makes you feel any better Bob. I know what you're saying anyway."
Bob shot an exasperated look at Schneider. He chased it up with a scoff:
"Reading minds already, Kurt?"
"Lips, actually. It works wonders at fund-raisers, especially with the ladies."
"Jesus, Kurt. Read it again: f$%k you. I've pissed inside this thing twice already. I've been stuck here for five hours. Are we gonna do this? Today?"
Schneider took a few steps closer to Bob. This time, he seemed to have his flippancy switched to 'off':
"Look, Bob. This isn't a dry run. This is the real thing. You can still back out. I've been waiting for this moment for almost twenty years. It's not like it's going to go away. There's always tomorrow. Piotr is practically gnawing at his Suit in E-3. He can take your place, recalibrate in under one hour."
Bob suddenly jerked himself upright, even with all the Suit's bulk. His eyes suddenly flared with the same gleam like five years before, when he had first entered the project, and laid eyes on the Chair. He didn't seem fond of Schneider's idea at all.
"f$%k Piotr! I've seen his stats. You don't need to goad me into doing this, Kurt. I want to. It's just too f$%king much, you know? I'm scared, that's all."
Much to his chagrin, Schneider smiled, but Bob did not avert his gaze or indicate he felt uncomfortable. There were probably worse things than Schneider's smile where he was going.
"Just think about Lisa. We need you calm, not edgy. Do you have your music with you?" said Schneider
Bob made a half-hearted attempt at smiling before replying:
"I got Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Vivaldi, Handel, Guns and Roses, W.A.S.P., I got -"
Schneider furrowed his brow and his attention was caught like a fish on a harpoon:
"Estranged and The Idol?" Schneider asked impatiently?
"Yes, yes! Jesus!"
"Good, good. Those two fit your deltas to a fault. Now let's run it down once more: Once we get past the Roetman-Schneider limit, you should -"
"You really love the sound of your name on everything, don't you?" interrupted Bob, pointing with his heavily gloved - almost armoured - hand at Schneider's T-shirt.
"I do. Now, once past that, you should -"
"Kurt, you've been designing this for twenty years. I've been eating, breathing, and shitting Intrinsic Enthalpy for the past five years. I've been wearing this god-awful Suit for two-and-a-half years. I got everything memorised. I'm sick of it. I want it to work, so please: flick that f$%king switch of yours and leave the rest to me. Can you do that? Relinquish control for just a moment?"
Kurt shied away, took a few steps backwards. He simply nodded, without a smile or a quirky comment. He stepped down from the dais on which the Chair had been literally carved upon and ran his fingers over a small, insignificant-looking panel. Without bells and whistles, a five-minute counter had lit up on a large display hanging from the ceiling. People around the Labyrinth were slightly caught off-guard, but they quickly assumed their predefined posts in front of screens and key equipment. They heard Schneider's voice rise above the pervasive electrical humming:
"Making history in five minutes, people. Hope someone's brought something expensive to drink."