I was flipping through a bunch of recently published F&SF stories, waiting for a title to catch my eye when a name caught my eye instead. E. Catherine Tobler. Checked the blog. Nope, hadn’t featured one of her stories before. Then I read this one and, oh, yes, that was going to change. Only on looking at her website did I realize I’d tweeted a piece from her on the new SFWA bulletin shortly before. It’s a pleasure to be able to feature her fiction.
He isn’t adjusting well, they say.
They want to observe him. They want him to come in, so he isn’t always so alone in the house he called home. He’s walking the meadows to mush, his neighbors say. Spends all night spinning circles in the grass.
They wonder at his pat answers. His time in the station–two years, he is reminded, reminded of investments in time and money–should have left a significant, perceptible change upon him. They slide him back into the scanner to look inside every nook and cranny.
He recalls with chilling precision the way, in school, a frog upon a black wax tray was placed before him. Spread upon its back, the frog’s legs pinned to the wax, belly pale and bulbous. Swollen with preservative fluids. He closes his eyes and he can smell that smell, can taste it in the back of his throat. Closes his eyes and can remember the tug of frog skin perceived through the length of scalpel. They don’t cut him open, but he feels the same tug.
They slice him into monochromatic layers, thread-thin. Sagittal, coronal, transverse. They disassemble and reassemble and ponder and question. He is no different, they say. But he must be! they say.
He feels the motion of the galaxy (falling, one into another) and the slide of one planet through the gravitational plane of another–so far distant it impacts nothing, nothing but him–and he cannot tell them. He feels the endless suck of a black hole, feels a speck of debris caught in the event horizon; this debris possesses a desire to be at long last swallowed whole yet holds the knowledge that it never will be. Forever suspended.
They ponder his brain and his heart, but never his courage. He wants them to ask the questions they don’t, the questions he cannot put into any kind of proper words. Those words have not reached this planet yet, but are streaming ever closer. Light year by light year, invisible through space, but en route. He feels that tug, too.