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Avalanche, Chapter 3 - Showcase

by Xena 

Posted: 28 June 2005
Word Count: 4144
Related Works: Avalanche, Chapter 1 - Showcase • Avalanche, Chapter 2 - Showcase • 

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                                                       Chapter 3
       They had to wake up very early to get back to the hut for the start of their working day. Mike had a splitting headache and felt sick. One look at Nick confirmed he was in a very similar state. Their first night out had taken its toll.
       And this is the day when I have to be buried alive? Mike thought with terror. There was no question about taking another day off. Mike didn’t want to try anybody’s patience any longer.
       On top of everything Mike felt stupid and embarrassed. Last night he had told Nick many things he wouldn’t normally discuss even with his friends. He wouldn’t invite other people to his vulnerabilities. He had learned this lesson so many times over and he couldn’t quite understand how he had slipped this time… And for no apparent reason! Now Nick definitely had a card to play in their relationship, or in whatever was going on between them. Terminology was not important.
       They hardly exchanged a word walking up the trail leading to their chalet. It soon became apparent that they wouldn’t make it in one go this time. They decided to take a rest. A pair of large stones conveniently rose on the verge of the path. They provided if not a comfortable sitting arrangement, then at least an excuse not to stand tall.       
       ‘You think the others are already up there?’ asked Nick.
       ‘It would be a disaster,’ said Mike.
       ‘Don’t worry, it’s still early. We'll be just in time for the experiments…’
       Then silence fell again. Suddenly Nick broke it:
       ‘Last time I was in a meaningful relationship was three years ago…’ he said.
       Mike couldn’t believe his ears. He looked at Nick. Nick was gazing down.
       ‘Our relationship came to an end when I smashed my car driving like a madman, looking for her all around town. You see, she'd stormed out and I ran after her.’ Here Nick looked at Mike. It gave Mike some reassurance that he wasn’t hearing things. ‘So, I was lying in the wreckage of the car, but she wasn’t in town. She wasn’t even in the country. She was in Spain… with someone else. At the time I wished I’d died. But I wasn’t even hurt. I was there in good health to face reality. Well, since then I try not to take things seriously. It’s healthier.’   
       Mike was looking at Nick in disbelief. To say he hadn’t seen it coming would be an understatement. The story was far too private. In fact, he had doubt he was capable of this degree of candour himself.
       It filled Mike’s heart with enormous gratitude. It was impossible not to see what Nick had done here. He had equalised their vulnerabilities… He had brought their relationship to equilibrium. From that moment on at least one thing was certain – the relationship existed.
       Mike didn’t know what the right thing to say was in this situation. He had never been in such a situation before. He just said what he felt: ‘Thank you.’
       They arrived at the chalet last. Everybody was already there, and they did receive a fair portion of accusing glances.
       ‘Are you ready?’ Ben asked them. ‘I think, we’d better start in the morning today, and then you can study in the afternoon.’
       What a forceful suggestion, thought Mike, slightly irritated. He is gradually assuming the role of a boss… Well, but what is he supposed to do with people like us?
       ‘Who’s going first?’ asked Ben looking around.
       Mike knew he wasn’t talking to everybody in this room. The finger was firmly pointing at the two of them. Nick had conveniently disappeared to the bathroom. Mike hated these games.
       ‘I am,’ he said, and thought:  
       I’m not gonna be angry with that bastard Nick this time. I can’t. I’m still too happy with him. Nobody’s perfect…
       Four of them left the chalet and made their way to the hut. When Mike was passing the hole dug out by the hut, he threw a quick glance at it. He couldn’t even imagine…
       Once inside the hut, Tim and Mark retreated to the computers and Mike soon forgot about their presence. Ben asked Mike to sit down and take his jumper off. Fuck… was all his mind could produce, as he was slumping on the bench.
       Ben attached leads to Mike’s chest, ankles and even a finger. He did it too skilfully and rather fast. In a blink of an eye Mike was connected and plugged in. It made him feel trapped. I can’t believe it. Nothing has started yet.
       ‘Would you like to lie down?’ Ben said. ‘I have to take pre-trial measurements.’
        What Mike first registered as a bench was in fact a form of an examination bed. Everything seemed to be intimidating around here. He wondered what it would be like without alcohol in his system.  
       ‘You look like a robot,’ chuckled Nick entering the hut.
       Mike scowled at him. He wanted to say something nasty, something snappy, but he couldn’t think of anything at the moment.
       Before long he was lying stretched out at the bottom of the hole he couldn’t even look at a few minutes ago.  A small net-screen was placed over his face to maintain an air pocket. Then heaps of snow started falling on him from all directions. That was when he lost the sight of human figures around. He could feel the pressure almost immediately and started taking deep breath to make sure that his chest could still heave unrestrictedly. 
       When he could no longer see the daylight, he felt a stab of panic, but managed to bridle it quite fast. He was saying to himself that all he wanted to do now was rest without any disturbance, and that was exactly what he was doing. It was nice and cool here. Nothing better could be desired in his nauseous state.
       He thought it was working… but then his shoulders contracted. It was probably no more than a twitch, but it made him aware of all the pressure he was under, and he realised with horror that he was unable to move. It suddenly dawned on him that he wouldn’t be able to leave this grave without the help of others. He was completely in their hands.
       He was clutching a small cylindrical device with a button in his hand, which was supposed to be his panic alarm. He came close to pressing it so many times, but he was too embarrassed to do it. Embarrassed, because it would be for no other reason than for his irrational fears. Otherwise he was alright. This shame kept him going, and, well, suffering.
       It’s all about trust. I’m unable to do anything. I’m paralysed. I’d better trust these people, trust that they won’t leave me here to die… Trust - not an easy task for a man who had spent the better part of his life training himself not to rely on anybody.
       Time dragged painfully slowly for him. He thought he could feel every second of it, then every millisecond, then it fragmented still further. He felt as though he had reached the limit on many occasions, but it would start all over again. Finally he decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He was just about to press the button, but instead he released his grip on the device. From that moment on the passing of time no longer had any effect on him. He realised he was in a state close to trance. 
       Eventually he sensed some activity above him. Then he saw the daylight.
       ‘How do you feel, Mike?’ he heard Ben’s voice.
       He could see faces over him, but couldn’t focus enough to pick Ben’s from the lot.
       ‘Mike!’ Ben’s voice leaped. ‘Speak to me!’
       ‘I’m fine,’ Mike mumbled.
       Many hands from all directions got hold of him and pulled him out. He was set on his feet. He stood upright. It didn’t feel real. He stood without support. He still felt a grip of only one hand on his right elbow. He turned his head right. He came face to face with Nick.
       ‘Are you alright?’ Nick asked frowning.
       ‘Yes, I’m fine…’ said Mike.
       Nick slowly let go of his elbow.
       ‘We had to pull you out,’ it was the voice of Ben from behind, ‘because your temperature had dropped too low. Any lower would take you into hypothermia. But you didn’t have any difficulties breathing, did you?’
       ‘No, I didn’t,’ said Mike.
       ‘Your saturation was normal. The air pocket was large enough,’ said Ben now showing in front of Mike. ‘Anyway, very well done! We had to pull Tim out much earlier. I was sure you would press the button too.’
       ‘There’s not much to do down there,’ Tim grinned. ‘I was bored.’
       Mike looked at Tim. He knew exactly what ‘boredom’ he was talking about.
       Tim is a wise man, thought Mike. There’s no need to kill yourself over these stupid experiments. In the end, when you’re dying from brain damage, no one will come to shake your hand.
       ‘Go, and have a cup of coffee… warm up…’ said Ben. ‘What about you, Nick? Are you ready?’
       ‘What? Right now?!’ exclaimed Mike suddenly.
       Nick looked at him.
       ‘It doesn’t make sense,’ continued Mike animatedly. ‘You have something to mull over for now. Let’s wait until we’ve prepared some input for you.’
       ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to just wait,’ Ben shrugged his shoulders. ‘I mean there is a sense in what we’re doing now. As soon as you’ve got something for me, we’ll refine our approach…’ 
       Now everybody was looking at Mike. The total silence that accompanied these looks rendered Mike speechless for a moment. Then Nick said: 
       ‘I’m ready. Take off these wires, Mike. My turn.’
       ‘Let’s have coffee first,’ Mike suggested. ‘We have plenty of time. It’s still not even midday!’
       ‘You have coffee. I’ll go down,’ Nick smiled.
       Ben ushered Mike into the hut and sat him on the examination bed. Mike’s eyes were wondering around the room while Ben was pulling off the pads from his chest. Mike couldn’t settle. He couldn’t bear to think that Nick had to go through all this now. It was hell down there. You wouldn’t wish it on a friend. He just didn’t know how to stop it.
       ‘Mike!’ he heard above his head.
       He looked up. Ben was leaning over him with his eyes fixed on him.
       ‘What?’ Mike asked.
       ‘Are you drowsy?’  
       ‘No!’ Mike exclaimed. ‘I’m absolutely fine.’
       ‘Okay, you can go,’ Ben said going back to his monitors. 
       Mike stood up and left the hut. Nick entered it straight after. Mike was smoking outside when Nick showed up with the leads hanging down from him.
       ‘Nick, it’s not easy,’ Mike said putting in this short sentence as much weight as he could. ‘And you don’t have to do it.’
       ‘You’ve been there,’ said Nick, ‘Tim’s been there… I’ll survive too.’
       ‘Don’t kill yourself. No one needs sacrifices. Just press the button.’
       ‘I don’t really see, at least from up here, why I would need this button. As long as I can breathe, I’ll be OK. And I’m connected to just about every device known to medical science. I’m not in a Nazi camp after all. I trust you won’t to go too far, will you?’
       ‘This is the best way to look at it.’ Mike nodded and smiled. ‘Good luck,’ he patted Nick on the shoulder.
       Mike still struggled to watch Nick being buried under the snow. He didn’t take part in the activity. He just stood close by, impotently looking at the others throwing snow over Nick with large shovels.
       He went into the hut. Nick’s heart rhythm was showing on a monitor. Mike fixed his gaze on it. Several other screens around were also producing figures and diagrams.
       Ben came in and approached.
       ‘The most important thing to watch in these trials,’ he said, ‘is his temperature, here…Look…’
       Mike turned his head. Ben continued:  
       ‘We’re not gonna go below 35 degrees just yet – hypothermia would set in…’
       ‘Just yet!’ exclaimed Mike.
       Ben continued regardless:
       ‘This is his heart rate. It will steadily increase as the body temperature drops. Although we can’t attribute all changes to the environmental exposure. His heart rate is already higher than usual due to the inevitable anxiety.’
       ‘Anxiety?!’ Mike looked at him. ‘That’s what you call it! It’s not just anxiety. It can drive you crazy!’
       ‘But for this purpose you have the button,’ Ben noted.
       It was true. Mike didn’t know what to say. He turned back to the monitor.
       He was looking at the green zigzags on the screen, trying to figure out what Nick might be feeling at the moment. Did he feel as claustrophobic as Mike had before him? Was he struggling not to press the button, or was he comfortable and relaxed? Maybe Mike’s own case was nothing, but a gross overreaction. Maybe the whole thing had been exaggerated by his mind clouded with alcohol.
       Time wasn’t moving at all once again. Mike couldn’t look at the screens any longer. They were telling him nothing about what he wanted to know. He left the hut and sat on the bench right in front of the ‘grave’. He lit up a cigarette and fixed his stare on the heap of snow above the burial spot.
       After a while he felt someone’s presence behind him. He turned round and saw Tim. Tim sat down next to him.
       ‘What do you think about these experiments?’ Tim asked.
       ‘You were right,’ replied Mike. ‘They’re no fun.’
       ‘Don’t you think they’re a bit too… cruel?’
       Mike sharply turned his head to Tim and looked at him intently.
       ‘What did you feel down there?’ he asked.
       ‘I could cope in the beginning,’ replied Tim, ‘but then it seemed never-ending. I thought I’d had enough and pressed the button. I just think it does require some sort of psychological training before you go down. Yes, exercises, if you wish…’ Tim paused for a moment and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Or maybe we’ll be OK after we’ve done it a few times. From here it doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. And then different people have different reactions, for some it’s easier…’
       ‘But you had the same reaction as I did.’
       Mike stood up, threw the cigarette on the ground and went into the hut.  
       He went up to Ben. Ben was deep in his work, making some notes in his notepad, occasionally glancing at the screens.
       ‘That’s enough,’ said Mike firmly.
       ‘What…?’ Ben turned round.
       ‘I said, that’s enough,’ Mike repeated. ‘How long has it been?’
       ‘Just under twenty minutes…’
       ‘How long was I there for?’ Mike asked.
       ‘Just about this long…’ Ben was gaping up at Mike with his neck twisted.               
       ‘So, it’s time to take him out then,’ Mike said.
       Ben stood up.
       ‘But he’s OK,’ he said. ‘You weren’t, that’s why we pulled you out. Your temperature had dropped too low. His seems to be more or less stable.’
       ‘Why’s that?’
       ‘Different reasons… You’re still under the influence of alcohol.’
       ‘But he’s been drinking too!’
       ‘Yes, but maybe he’s drunk less, or maybe he’s simply more tolerant to alcohol.’ Ben paused and then he said in a much quieter voice: ‘Mike, he is OK. His temperature is OK. His heart rate is OK. And there’s no indication of any other problems.’
       ‘Other problems!’ blurted Mike. ‘These screens cannot possibly show all the problems.’
       ‘They show enough,’ insisted Ben. ‘And, after all, he has the button!’
       This button again! Mike could never find any argument against it. He sat down and hung his head. Suddenly he heard Tim’s voice and looked up.
       ‘Listen, Ben,’ Tim said. ‘I think it would be a good idea to start with shorter intervals, so we could get used to it. I understand that he’s physically alright and he’s not asking us to take him out. But psychologically it’s not easy to do what he’s doing now. It’s difficult to appreciate from up here, at least fully…’
       ‘OK, I understand what you mean,’ Ben said. ‘Maybe you’re right. In all these trials they probably underestimate the psychological pressure. I mean they do take it into account, but…’
       Mike didn’t hear Ben’s lecture to the end. He was already outside digging into the snow. He was soon joined by the others.
       When they were closer to Nick’s body, Mike fell on his knees and started sweeping the snow with his hands until he finally saw the dark colours of Nick’s outfit. Ben lifted the screen and Nick squinted his eyes. Mike was just about to grab Nick to pull him out, when Nick raised his head above the snow and sat up. Nick then stood up with a little help from the others.
       ‘Are you alright?’ asked Ben.
       ‘Yes, absolutely fine,’ said Nick shaking the snow off his clothes.
       ‘We had a heated discussion over your buried body here,’ Ben grinned. ‘By the majority of votes you were pulled out.’
       ‘What do you mean?’ asked Nick.    
       ‘Let’s go to the chalet to have lunch or something. We’ll discuss it there,’ Ben said. ‘And I need to know how much each of you drank yesterday.’
       ‘Great,’ Mike grumbled. ‘We can’t even have private life now.’
       ‘Guinea pigs don’t,’ Nick chuckled.  
       ‘What was that heated discussion all about?’ Nick asked when he and Mike were in their room.
       ‘Well,’ Mike drawled, ‘we thought. It was Tim’s idea… that we should slow down a bit. There’s no hurry. We’ll start with small intervals and then gradually increase them. Just to ease into it.’
       ‘You mean how long we should stay down there?’ asked Nick.
       ‘I don’t understand why we would do such a thing,’ Nick said looking at Mike. ‘It’s all individual. That’s why we have the button. Tim needed it. Tim used it. It works.’  
        It confused Mike. He didn’t know what to say.  
       ‘How did you find it?’ he asked instead.
       ‘It was fine,’ Nick said. ‘I was certainly never close to pressing that button.’
       Mike stared into Nick’s eyes. Trouble was that he didn’t know Nick well… didn’t know him at all. Was it a genuine grit, or only a false competitiveness? Was Nick a show-off? Who was Nick?   
       ‘Frankly,’ Nick continued. ‘I had more concerns when I was on my way there, than when I was already inside. Yes, it’s one hell of a thing to do. And we had too much last night. But when I found myself confined in there, I realised that there was nothing I could do, so I let it go… What about you?’
       ‘It was bearable,’ said Mike slowly. ‘I just wasn’t prepared for it. It came as a surprise… But I’m sure, next time it will be easier.’
       And it was. Not without the help of Tim’s take-it-easy program, which was implemented without delays. In only a few days it had made remarkable changes. The mood of the experiments had become rather airy, and even cheerful, and when Mark eventually announced that he was willing to try, even Tim began to believe in his insight into human psyche. It was harder to see if it had made any difference to Nick. For whatever reason he never spoke against it again, and Mike started to have doubts that he had ever heard it from him in the first place.        
       Meanwhile, Nick and Mike were making substantial advances in their research. Now that they had become more intimately acquainted with the subject and the discomfort of the first encounter was gone, Nick turned into a workaholic to Mike’s greatest astonishment. Mike thought Nick would sooner drop dead, than take a rest of his own accord. Nick even seemed to have lost a great deal of his interest in skiing, which would at times cause difficulties to Mike, who often had to wait by the front door leaning on his skis, repeatedly urging: ‘C’mon then! We’ve decided to go!’ In truth Mike admired Nick’s dedication. He was totally in owe of this raw zeal and this lack of balance.
       The most exciting development of all was the start of their field research, much sooner than they expected. The first timid attempt to put their knowledge into practice had given them considerable thrill. They even compared the lurching sensations in their respective chests and concluded that it was a match. Something was definitely working and they had made it work.
       There was also a significant change in their housekeeping. After seeing Mark cooking dinner for everybody on a succession of days, and ending up helping him on each of those occasions, Mike finally decided to organise things differently. He announced to everybody that cooking would be managed in turns, each room taking care of it on a designated day (which, of course, had left Ben on his own, because he had a room of his own). Mike also hinted that those who were not on the scheme would have to fend for themselves. There were further schedules for cleaning and shopping.
       To Mike’s surprise, he met little or no resistance. If there was a trace of resistance, it was coming from Nick, who was frowning at Mike throughout his speech, but said nothing. Everybody submitted without protest, and there were even voices asking for a copy of the schedules.       
       The rest of their life was also taking shape. They would go down to the valley every other day. They had learned the path to their chalet so well, that they could go up and down it at any time and in complete darkness. It no longer seemed to be an obstacle. In town Nick and Mike would usually diplomatically stick with the others, but on occasions would still give in to the allure of the local customs, and would split from the group to mingle with the local customers.
       These campaigns would be coldly received by their team mates, who would never fail to question them on the topic, but hardly ever managed to be positive about it. Nick and Mike would report as a duo, and in perfect harmony. They would speak alternatingly, but never over each other, never interrupting each other. It was like they were led by a master conductor, singing their favourite tune. And the worst part would come when they would ask: ‘And what about you?’ The choir of Ben, Tim and Mark didn’t have the same clarity of sound. The tune would be ‘we had a pint’, ‘we had a chat’, but the delivery was rather lifeless.
       ‘You can see the benefits of learning foreign languages,’ Nick observed. Mike didn’t speak any foreign languages, but one thing he had learned all too well – you in fact needed very little of it. It was Nick’s personality that would win the day, and Mike didn’t know what he liked more - the company of women Nick would pick up for them, or the way Nick did it. Mike thought that if he was a woman himself, he would find it absolutely impossible to resist Nick’s advances. He would speak Chinese if that was what it took.
       Characteristically, once Nick had done the most difficult part of the job, he would graciously retreat and allow Mike to lead the way. On several occasions Mike saw with annoyance that he would be the more popular of the two, all because of this manner of Nick and no other reason. Mike thought it was terribly noble of him and did his best to send the ball in his court.
       He also thought that deep inside he liked most those nights when they would end up in a restaurant on their own, just the two of them, in front of a bottle of their favourite Saint-Emilion. He just couldn’t relax better in any other setting.
       They were getting on together remarkably well. Admittedly Mike could hardly remember being so at ease with anybody in his life. They thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and couldn’t get enough of it. They were practically inseparable, and Mike thought with trepidation that it would all have to come to an end one day. They would eventually have to go back home, each back to his own life. He had to be realistic, they couldn’t carry on like this in London. He was aware that they had been brought so close together by circumstances, and it was circumstances alone that kept them together. He preferred to think of it as a field unique to the Chamonix massif, which could support delicate structures unable to exist elsewhere, definitely not in places like London. But it was still so far away. Life outside Chamonix seemed unreal.

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