I obediently clenched my left hand. I liked the ultrasound technicians. They were nice, although they treated me with an odd reverence. I had asked Sherman why that was once, after a particularly relaxing session in the ultrasound chamber. He’d laughed and replied, “Because, my sweet Sal, you are the only person ever to fall asleep in their gooey torture chamber. They think you’re either bloody insane, or that you’ve got balls the size of boulders.”
“What do you think?” I’d asked.
“I think it’s a little bit of both.”
I smiled around my rebreather at the memory, and allowed the last bit of tension to seep out of me as the ultrasound whirred to humming, buzzing life. My breathing slowed further once the humming began. The sound set up minute vibrations through the liquid, faint enough that they didn’t interfere with the machine’s readings, but strong enough for me to feel them eddying against my skin. It was like being at the center of my own private tide pool.
At some point, I drifted away, down into the dark, which reached up to claim me like a lover, folding itself around me and pulling me into itself. I didn’t fight. I was safe, I was surrounded and safe, and nothing was ever going to hurt me again.
I didn’t dream. Not there in the ultrasound tube, with the warm gel buoying me up and the sound of the machine lapping against my skin. Instead, I just drifted, and dozed, and let the world pass by around me.
It was gravity that brought me back: the strangely wrenching sensation of gravity reasserting itself as the gel began draining out of the ultrasound tube and my body settled down onto the hard metal bed of the machine. I managed not to start squirming, but it was hard. This was always the tricky part, keeping still until I was given the clearance to start moving again. Move too soon, and I risked either dislodging my rebreather and giving myself a lungful of plastic gel, or opening my eyes and getting an eyeful of the stuff instead. It wouldn’t actually hurt me, but it could make breathing—and seeing—remarkably uncomfortable for a short period of time.
“You all right in there, Sally?” asked the voice in my ear. I responded with a very small nod, feeling the motion set up waves through the remaining gel. The level was still dropping, faster all the time; it was around my ears now. My exposed skin felt overly tender, and the air was cold after the comforting warmth of the gel. I shivered, despite trying not to.
“Just hold tight,” said the voice. “We’re almost done draining the gel, and we’ll have you out of there as soon as it’s done.”
I nodded again, more firmly this time. Seconds ticked by, and the gel level dropped, until I was lying totally exposed, shivering and faintly gooey in my one-piece swimsuit. The machine whirred as it responded to a new set of commands, and the tube that I had been lying in for the better part of an hour began moving slowly outward. The air quality changed, getting even colder. I continued to shiver, but didn’t open my eyes until a damp, warm washcloth was pressed against them, wiping away the remainder of the goo.
Hands gripped my rebreather. “Release, please,” said the technician’s voice, clearer now that it wasn’t being filtered through the gel. I unclenched my teeth. He pulled the mouthpiece away, and wiped my mouth and chin with another cloth.
I opened my eyes.
The first thing I saw was the ceiling. Turning my head slightly, I saw the two ultrasound technicians: a short, freckle-faced man with a mop of red curls, holding my rebreather in one hand, and a tall, rail-thin woman with medium-brown skin and dark brown hair that she wore raked back into a no-nonsense bun. I offered them a hesitant smile. “How did I do?”
“Splendidly, as always,” said Dr. Sanjiv, and offered me her hand. “Your clothes are waiting in the changing room, although I strongly recommend you shower, as usual, before you even think about going near them. You’re slimier than the average bivalve.”
“So why are you touching me?” I asked, grasping her fingers and letting her pull me out of the ultrasound tube. The squelching sound made when my back broke contact with the bed of the machine was unnerving, no matter how many times I heard it.
“I don’t mind bivalves, whereas Marvin here,” she indicated Dr. McGillis, “dislikes them on general principle.”
“I only eat food that had visible eyes before it was cooked,” said Dr. McGillis, unruffled. “It seems more sporting that way. Thanks again for being such a good sport about all this, Sally.”
It was all I could do not to hug him on the spot, all-encompassing slime or no all-encompassing slime. “It’s my pleasure,” I said. “You guys are my favorite stop here at SymboGen.”
For some reason, that statement seemed to unnerve them. They exchanged a look laden with some meaning I couldn’t decipher, and Dr. Sanjiv dropped my hand like it had burned her. “Go get changed, Sally,” she said. “We’re finished for today.” She turned and walked quickly out of the room. Dr. McGillis followed her, leaving me standing there dripping gel and utterly confused.
When several minutes passed without them coming back to explain, I turned, shoulders slumped, and walked to the room where my clothes were waiting. Sherman would be outside in the hall, ready to take me to my next appointment. I normally liked to linger in the ultrasound lab, but not today. Today, I just wanted to be gone.
The water in the shower came out of the tap already optimally adjusted to warm without burning. There were no dials to let me adjust the temperature; you took your showers warm but not scalding, or you didn’t take them at all. I stepped under the warm spray, tilting my face up toward the ceiling, and let it rinse away the last of the goo from the ultrasound chamber.