There are spots of silver eating through his vision and it’s hard to see through them. They crawl across his eyes like fat worms, shimmering like molten lead. The more they eat the bigger they become. Already there are only a few patches left where he can see.
He shakes his head but he can’t dislodge the worms. Somehow he doesn’t think to raise his hands to wipe them from his eyes.
There’s somebody sitting on the gyroscope. This is what he thinks. He thinks that maybe he can see a foot there and one square shoulder beside an angular head. He needs to know because the gyroscope is very important and it might not work if someone is sitting on it. This is why, even though he has hardly a breath to spare, he calls out to it.
Kuroki, he says. Kuroki is that you?
Nishina you son of a bitch, says a voice, and he knows from the words that it must be him.
I’m glad you’re here, says Nishina. I couldn’t tell. It’s hard to see.
Of course it is, says Kuroki. You’re sucking on diesel fumes.
Ah. That’s right. I forgot about the diesel fumes.
How can you forget? The engine is right behind your head.
Nishina remembers with an effort about the engine. He hears the roar of it behind him, or at least he thinks he does, although the sound seems oddly muted as though it’s coming from behind a damp towel. He tries to see if he can smell it, that smell of soot and burning oil, and that’s when he remembers that it’s been a long time since he’s last taken a breath.
Breathe, says Kuroki.
Right, says Nishina. He tries to breathe, but he’s not sure if he’s doing it. His body is a fuse box where somebody has peeled off all the labels. He can flip the switches but he has no idea where each one is connected. He tries something and he feels the muscles on his neck tense up. He tries something else and it clenches his back.
It’s no use, says Nishina.
It’s too late, says Kuroki. Carbon monoxide, you know.
Jesus. So this is what it’s like.
Be happy. You have it better than I did. I got carbon dioxide, remember? That was much more work.
But Nishina doesn’t remember. He sits silently for a while, waiting for the worms to crawl out of his sight. The engine is behind him, he remembers. On either side of him are the narrow walls of a tunnel. In front of him is the butt of a black steel tank. He has to squint to see, because even the parts without the worms are getting darker now, as if the light is beginning to fade.
Kuroki, are you sitting on the gyroscope?
No. I’m on the stopwatch.
Ah, says Nishina. He forgot about the stopwatch too. The stopwatch is set to ten minutes and it’s counting down to zero. He can’t remember what happens when it runs out.
Don’t worry about it, says Kuroki. That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about.
Good, says Nishina. I have enough worry as it is. It’s good that you’re here to tell me about the things I don’t have to worry about.
Nishina thinks that it’s getting hot inside the tunnel, or maybe it was always this hot and he’s only now noticing. He can taste the saltiness of the sweat in his mouth even though he can’t feel the damp of it on his skin. He can taste the oil in the air too, diesel oil, and he thinks he can see it, little floating droplets moving past his face. It’s as though the air itself were a sponge and diesel is being wrung out of it.
Why are we in a tunnel, Kuroki?
Kuroki starts to laugh. It’s a wheezing, coughing sound and partway through Nishina hears something slide across the floor.
You think we’re in a tunnel? says Kuroki. You of all people. I really thought you would know better.
Know better about what?
You don’t remember anything, do you?
I’m trying, Kuroki.
Nishina feels something pressed against the top of his head and he tries to think of what it is. A periscope, he thinks, the word coming to him slowly, one syllable at a time–per-i-scope. A little baby of a thing, he remembers. The damndest contraption. It had been almost impossible to see out of. Like looking through the wrong end of a pair of toy binoculars. It folds up, he remembers, just like toy binoculars, and through it he had seen…He can’t remember what he had seen.
Don’t you remember our invention? says Kuroki. Or the accident with me in the harbor?
Nishina tries to shake his head but the wires that are all crossed up in his body make him wiggle his elbows instead. So he tries to speak. His voice is small now and his mouth is dry, but he manages to make a little noise,
Outside the walls of the tunnel Nishina can hear something, or maybe he feels something. A distant shaking. A series of impacts. One of them shakes his hand so that it falls from his lap. He tries to pick it up again but he can’t move it.
Kuroki. Help me Kuroki.
Nishina hears a long, exasperated sigh as a small white box slides into view. It looks strangely familiar but he can’t remember where it’s from. It comes to rest against one of his boots. It looks like an urn, he thinks, but he doesn’t know why he thinks that.
You can’t be helped, says the box. You’re in a torpedo and there’s no way out. Don’t you remember that you planned it this way?
Nishina doesn’t remember. Try as he might, he can’t recall a thing. All he knows is that the shaking is getting stronger and he has a vague worry about the stopwatch. He wants to know how much time is left on it but he doesn’t think Kuroki will tell him. Kuroki who is in a box. In a box in a tunnel. And Nishina is trapped in here with him. He doesn’t think he has enough strength left to ask many other questions. He settles for the one that’s most on his mind.
Kuroki, what am I doing here?
The box is silent for a long time, and then just as the shaking stops, Nishina hears it clear its throat.
You’re dying for your country, it says. That’s what this is.
Nishina wants to know more, but the stopwatch tells him that he’s out of time.
Gen Del Raye grew up in Kyoto, Japan, and lived there until he was eighteen. Currently he is studying marine biology in Honolulu, Hawaii. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Monarch Review, Kentucky Review, Pithead Chapel, and others.
Lead image: “The Tunnel” (via Flickr user Nicole Quevillon)