Ascension from the Abyss

Submitted into Contest #168 in response to: Start your story with someone looking out a train window.... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative Contemporary

It's incredible, really. I know everyone says that because everyone should–a train that runs from Portsmouth to La Rochelle is nothing to shake a stick at.

Trains I've been on in the past showed me trees, grasslands, and mountains whizzing by. The Sub-Atlantic Railway, however, shows me fathomless dark. It provides the eerie reflection of a mirror that sees further than the skin and into your own soul's abyss.

Early in the trek, while the sun was still shining, I saw marine life like one can only imagine; in the first few hours of the trek I saw bluefin tuna, giant manta rays, a school of sardines, and even a pair of great white sharks. It's 10 PM EST now, though, meaning it's probably closer to 1 AM wherever in the ocean we are now; there is no light to filter through the water and give us a wink of the wonders around us.

As deep as a maximum of 120 meters below the surface, clear acrylic and laminated glass sandwiched between rows of stainless steel-plated aluminum columns create the housing for the railway itself. Despite the advancement of submarine transportation in the last century, the engineers of the S.A.R. decided to play it safe and stuck closer to the depth of safety for the coastal passenger subs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries than to the 450 meter parameter of nuclear-powered military subs from the same era. The rail cars are prepared to function as submarines in case of catastrophe, but they still require each passenger to sign a waiver acknowledging that the ocean is still and always will be an untamable beast at its heart. All of this information I got from the digital brochure that all potential passengers are required to pass an exam on before being granted entry.

The governments and private agencies that have partnered to create and maintain the S.A.R. required decades of research into the train wrecks of yesteryear, for this and for the skyrails on land. The technologies developed to strike a balance between flexibility and stability necessary to keep the structure safe and secure at that depth is way above my need-to-know status, but I do remember watching a documentary that mentioned it was inspired by the now obsolete deep-sea oil rigs.

I'm at an impasse. Close my eyes and try to sleep, knowing that there is a great primordial power surrounding me that I can do nothing to engage with, or stay awake and unblinkingly stare into the void. Both options are beautiful, and both options are terrifying. Both options give me nothing to distract myself with, so I know I must stew in anxiety and breathe through it until I can finally doze off.

This train is not a pragmatic one. You don't take this train for the convenience or speed as its travel time is about half a day longer and the ride itself is significantly more difficult to plan for than the same trip by Airbus. This train is half the reason you're taking the trip, if not more. In fact, a lot of S.A.R. passengers unload their rail cars and head straight to the nearest airport to head back home. My plan is to take a week in the French countryside, though; I'll use this experience as kindling for the flame of creativity I've been quietly searching for, or maybe just to appease my therapist in her years-long aim to get me to take risks. Then I will return to the boarding station with my ticket back to North America and make this trip a second time.

Kinda wild to go from recluse to amateur aquanaut in the span of six months, right? But that's what I did. My gut finally decided to hear someone else's ideas for a change.

Once, I loved going to the library. My city is lucky enough to have a very highly regarded and well-funded public library; they have extremely rare physical books there, and while you can check out and take home incredibly accurate replicas, genuine tomes are kept locked behind plexiglass in display alcoves throughout the library, only accessible via bio-secured vaults that open like back doors into the display area. Should a historian or other approved guest need access to the book, they are watched by armed guards and escorted into a sterile lab space where they can open and examine it. The display space is filled by a hologram in the meantime.

I also enjoyed traveling in my past, and visiting new libraries was a core part of that. Since I was just passing through as a visitor, I would browse the shelves in a more museum-esque manner. I've also perused the stacks when I visited the Great North American Historical Plaza via real-time virtual reality, still surrounded by the patrons that were there physically. These visits were years ago, though. I made these trips, physical and virtual, before developing the agoraphobia that has kept me stuck at home and barely able to video- and holo-call people.

Psychologists were shocked when it was discovered that even VR interactions can trigger anxiety in people who live with agoraphobia, but there I was: One of many thousands of reported cases within the first year of the discovery, thanks to the therapist I was seeing at the time.

Two years later, my mother was in my studio apartment via holo-call begging me to try the very thing every therapist I'd been to has recommended since my diagnosis. Exposure therapy has been used for sufferers of phobias for two centuries, undergoing consistent evaluation, adjustments, and tweaks to ensure the best outcome for patients.

It. Sounds. Like. Hell.

And from someone who is actively engaging in it, right this very moment, it is.

But it is also so, so freeing once it takes hold and your psyche begins to recognize other humans and shared spaces, at the core, neutral. We can learn otherwise after interacting with the stimulus, but previous to treatment I saw nothing but potential harm around me. I saw no flowers, only potential poisons. I heard no children laughing, only the cackles of bullies after making another child cry. I felt no refreshing rain nor warming sun on my skin, and as I left my apartment as little as possible, all I had to mull over were the tinged memories of these experiences: Soaked and muddy clothes clinging to my shivering body on one mental page, and on the next there was the heat radiating back out from my burned skin after too much time in the sun.

That was then, though.

Now, after six months of thrice-weekly therapy sessions–first via video call, then a few weeks in, I allowed her to visit my home as a hologram–I've been able to reframe those unfortunate misconceptions to a degree of comfort.

In the sixth session, she had me bring her hologram with me as she guided me through my front door, into the elevator, and down to the first floor of my building. That was that, and she said I did good. Session seven went the same way so as to reduce risk of overexertion.

In session eight, another tenant joined the elevator three floors from the bottom. My stomach twisted and I had to remember to take slow, controlled, deep breaths. I made it to the bottom, though, and I stepped out of the elevator. The lobby's light, clean, modern styling felt like the opposite of a cramped elevator. Aside from my own little oasis on the ninth floor, this was the most comforting space I'd been in in years. Still, I only made it five minutes before my skin felt buzzy and I stepped back into the elevator; this time only joined by my therapist's hologram, thankfully.

In addition to these exercises we did engage in more traditional therapy models, of course. We dissected the 'why' of my disorder's development, the ways it had been holding me back, and the many layers of what the anxiety was actually made up of.

With time, I made it out the front door. Next was the boardwalk, then a dock against the floating city's canals. Soon I was able to go to the nearest skyrail terminal, the market, a coffee shop, and four months in, I went to the library in person. I took the skyrail from my neighborhood to the center of the city, where the largest, most opulent building clearly declares that it houses and protects generations and generations of knowledge, entertainment, and discourse.

Surely this was all evidence that I was cured, right? Absolutely not. With each interaction at each of these destinations my skin crawled, to various degrees. Skyrail travel was hell and to this day it's still somewhat like that. Rather than engage a cramped railcar for longer than fifteen minutes, I would call off whatever I needed to travel to and just go home. At the market and the coffee shop I spoke to nobody so long as I could help it. Self check-out kiosks are delightful wherever they're available, but I usually opted to take on smaller indie establishments rather than a Super Target or Starbucks; something in my bones said that the trade-off was worth it, choosing small interactions with fewer people over nearly-eliminated interactions surrounded by hundreds of people or more. The only case in which I felt comfortable while in the presence of strangers was, of course, the library.

At around the four-month mark, I'd been visiting the library and my favorite coffee shop two to three times a week, and doing my shopping once every ten days, roughly. I had even taken a ten-minute trip into a Super Target, which was just long enough for me to pick out a new sweater and get back out.

The barista complimented the sweater when I wore it to the coffee shop the next day. I said, "Thank you," despite having only chosen the sweater because it was close to the door and available in my size–I didn't particularly care for it.

I'm wearing that sweater like a suit of armor right now, though. Instead of the city that I slowly but surely ventured into with the help of my therapist, I'm under the ocean in the middle of the night. There aren't as many passengers per car on the S.A.R. compared to the average skyrail car. However, I cannot escape these people. Not in ten to fifteen minutes, nor even ten to fifteen hours. Twenty-two hours and some change is the fast end of average for these trips. Any faster and the S.A.R. would be violating one of the very few truly international laws.

There were two months between that barista's compliment and right now, and I can assure you there was no blind leap into the abyss between here and there. My therapist and I discussed the possibility of pairing something that terrified me, public transportation, with something that fascinated me and brought me joy. We came up with a solution that would bring me to the ultimate earthbound isolation, breached with a transient population. At the beginning of the trip I was able to turn my shoulder to the other passengers and focus intently on the technicolor dances of marine life. In the night, though, we have nothing to catch our eyes but each other.

I decide to think of the ocean as a library with all its knowledge and wonder, just waiting to be unlocked. While I hope it does not become a literal truth, I will choose to believe that I am contributing to that library with my present experience and with the writing that will be inspired by this journey.

October 22, 2022 03:56

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