William squeezed his fingers into the thin polyester glove. As he rubbed the tips of his gloved fingers in a circular motion around the spherical object inside the opaque test box, he realized he his first guess had been wrong: It wasn’t an orange. Its surface was too smooth but, even more definitively, it had many large, irregular bumps. It’d have to be an orange with really bad acne, he chuckled to himself. Maybe it was that weird-named fruit, what was it called, an ugli? The lab boys were playing with him again, giving him test objects nobody had ever heard of.
One thing was certain: This latest plastic, TR6281 as it was labeled on William’s evaluation sheet, was barely more sensitive than dishwashing gloves, hardly competition for the UltraThin. Maybe the lab boys were going for something else here, like maximum insensitivity for men with premature ejaculation problems, but otherwise this latest creation of the geniuses in R & D was useless. He filled out his evaluation forms and told the lab boys he was ready for the next synthetic.
The new sample, PL8844, showed promise immediately. The moment William put his hand into the glove and through the opening and into the Feel Box, he knew this was an unusual synthetic. He knew nothing could match the advertising slogans, could make it feel like you “had nothing on at all,”, but this came damn close.. William cautioned himself not get too enthused, especially not at first. It was all too often that a substance would seem remarkably conductive substance at first, only to fail as the test trials progressed. Over time the glove would seem to lose its sensitivity or worse, he’d feel an uncomfortable or clammy sensation that spelled instant doom for the lab’s latest product. Still, he found it hard to contain his excitement when he found a good one. He wanted to be the guy that tested the plastic sheathing they actually used in the finished product. He smiled ironically to himself: Wouldn’t that be something a boy’s mom could be proud of!
But even Bill’s cynicism wasn’t cutting through his sense that PL8844 was different from any fabric he’d ever tested. He tried to calm himself down. He reminded himself that he was paid for his touch sensitivity, not for his enthusiasm. He remembered that, before he landed this job, his “talent” was more curse than blessing. As a kid, he’d won bets by reading the year and minting marks on the coins without seeing them, but after a while the other kids took it for granted and lost interest. William had gone through various jobs when he stumbled onto an employable use for his ability. He wasn’t about to throw it away by getting all gaga about PL8844.
Nevertheless, the test substance was remarkable. If he touched one finger against another he could feel all its familiar lines, wrinkles, canals, concentric circles. It was as though the plastic sheath enhanced his sensitivity rather than reduced it. He stretched his gloved hand through the series of rubber gaskets that separated the test room from the hidden contents of the Feel Box.
The first test item was standard: a domino. Could he determine its dots through the sheathe? He did not need anyone to confirm that this was a double six. This was a relatively easy test object, given his tactile sensitivity, but he was struck by the vividness of the image in his mind. It was as though he could see the domino in his hand.
The next test was always more challenging. A thick aqueous solution filled the Feel Box. Usually the gook made it all but impossible to “read” the domino. This time it was easy: Two dots on one half of the domino and three on the other. William took a deep breathe. He was becoming increasingly confident that no matter matter what they gave him next, he would be able to tell what it was. It seemed impossible, but he kept feeling the gloves increased his sense of touch the longer he kept them on.
“I want to try something,” William said. It would be strange for the techies who monitored the William’s test room to hear him speak this way. His communications over the intercom were generally limited to requests for breaks or to move on to a new test case. William had something particular in mind. He’d tried a couple times to use his hypersensitivity to distinguish printed letters on a page. He thought he might be able to detect the difference between the ink laden letters and the paper itself, but he’d never succeeded. Up to now, he’d concluded that he’d found the limit of his talent. “Give me a fresh, empty tank,” he said. “Put in a newspaper, something printed.”
To his own amazement, he found that he could read the words on a page that he couldn’t see. For the first time since he’d started the job, William began to censor his reports, to reveal less than he could of how clearly he could visualize the test objects. It felt unreal, absurd. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want those who ran the tests from knowing just what this plastic could do. Not just yet, at least. Anyway, it was almost time for his break. Then he’d have a moment to think it through.
When his break did come, however, William didn’t get the fifteen minutes alone in the coffee room that he’d counted on to pull himself together. Not only was someone else in the room, but the other person, a tall, ungainly man in a long white lab coat. was coming straight over to the table where William had plopped himself. William couldn’t remember the last time anyone at the lab had spoken to him. Why whould they? Not many people were anxious to get acquainted with the condom tester.
“Hi. I’m David,” the man said, “May I join you?” Without waiting for a response, David awkwardly crumpled into a seat across from William and continued, “I saw your reaction to PL8844. Not your run-of-the-mill latex, is it?”
William was shocked that a lab tech would refer directly to the test. Apart from the fact that William was almost universally ignored, it was strictly against the rules of the lab for the technicians to discuss the testers’ conclusions. He didn’t answer. David said nothing more and both sat uncomfortably staring at each other. Finally, David said, “You know, of course, that it’s an NCV.”
William had no idea what David was talking about and said so.
“Sad but true, an NCV: No Commercial Value. Brilliant. A truly amazing substance in the hands of a Hyper, like we call you guys who can tell a honey dew melon from a watermelon in a nanosecond through three layers of latex thick enough for our SuperProtect label. Put PL8844 on, and bam!, you can damn near read the label on a soup can!”
“I was holding back,” William admitted.
“I suspected that,” David replied. “Once you got started, I was pretty confident you could make out anything they threw at you. Doesn’t matter much, though, it’s still just an NCV. ‘How’re we going to market it?’ they ask me. ‘It’s too sensitive,’ they said. It pissed me off, but what can I do? Creative Genius for a condom factory isn’t exactly where my MIT education was supposed to land me, but here I am.”
“You can’t be serious,” William spurted out. “I can see stuff that I’m just touching through these gloves. How can it be worthless?”
“No commercial value. Our factory makes prophylactics, in case you’ve forgotten, not gloves that give sight to the blind. The company owns the patent and they don’t intend to market it, end of story. I’m lucky I can still sneak in some tests to see if the formula still works. At least that let’s me find out who’s a real Hyper, who can really sense through their hands. Believe me, you’re one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
William accepted the compliment, although he didn’t feel particularly proud of this ability. David, however, was becoming more animated. Aware that he was running of time as William’s break neared its end, David sputtered a proposal.
“I need your help,” David said. “I’ve got something even more amazing than PL8844. I need you to try it. You won’t be able to feel anything through it initially. The effect seems to be gradual over many uses. I’m not completely certain what this stuff will do, but I’m been following up on some ideas that led me to PL8844 in the first place and I think this may be something special.
“Here,” David said, sliding a sheet of paper onto Bill’s clipboard. “These are the items in the next set of tests. Pretend you’re getting about 75-80% right. That’ll keep them giving you more samples. I’ll catch up to you afterwards.”
“Why should I do this?”
“Why not? You got something better to do?”
“I’ll get fired if they find out.”
“You don’t think that’s what’ll happen to me? I’m on the bubble as it is. I haven’t had a commercial success since MagicTouch. You knew enough not to tell them you could “read” a picture in a newspaper with your fingers, so my bet is you’re as curious as I am about just how far we can go. Talk to you later.” David unkinked his long frame, stood up abrupted and was gone before William could object.
Though the new sample had a number like all the others, William thought of it as “David’s Folly” to amuse himself. Expecting it to be ultra-sensitive, he was surprised how non-conductive the gloves felt, especially after PL8844. It was immediately obvious that, as an ultra-thin, ultra-sensitive prophylactic, it was useless. He could have felt more through a pair of oven mitts. He couldn’t distinguish a Brillo Pad from Saran Wrap. Yet, there was something else, something hard to identify, to put into words, that he could feel. He felt it more and more as the testing continued. It was a bit like PL8844, but far more intense. Rather than “seeing” what he touched, the experience enveloped all his senses.
As intense as this sensation was, in the first several tests it was far too vague and diffuse for William to have any idea what he was feeling. If David hadn’t feeding him the answers when they met surreptitiously in the coffee room, the lab boys would have rejected the material as a complete failure. But William’s cheat sheet made it look like the substance “showed promise” and the testing continued.
Each time the sensations became more intense. At first it was like seeing something in the distance through the droplets of water inside a cloud.. Gradually, something was coming into focus, something completely unrelated to the object in the Feel Box.
The sensations were so intense, that, as William put his hand into the thin membrane, he feared something was wrong, perhaps terribly wrong. He resisted an intense desire to pull his hand out of the glove immediately. He thought of the moment, when he was a boy, when his science teacher had asked him to place his hand under two spigots of running water, one lukewarm, the other cold. This little demo, designed to show that we feel because of the simultaneous stimulation of our warm and cold receptors combined with William’s hypersensitivity to produce an excruciating, if momentary, feeling of being burned alive. Then, he had pulled his hand away so abruptly, that he struck the kid next to him sharply across the face.
Now, however, he resisted pulling his hand out, despite the fact that the mere contact with whatever this glove was made of made him recoil intensely. He wasn’t even sure what it was about the substance that made him want to pull back. It just felt uncanny.
But if David’s Folly wasn’t going to do much for the condom industry, it was definitively the most unusual substance William had ever encountered. On one level, it was felt more or less like any other sheath of latex, thin but strong, form fitting and flexible, and so on. On the other, it felt like no substance he’d ever touched. When he closed his eyes, as he often did when he was running the tests, he felt as though his entire body, his whole being, really, was inside that glove. It was as though it were pulling him in, deeper and deeper, as though, if he did not consciously hold back, he himself would be sucked into the glove, into the Feel Box, perhaps never to return.
He imagined this was how Alice felt as she put her little toe into the looking glass in Lewis Carroll’s story. Alice hadn’t hesitated when the mirror’s surface became foggy and she stepped directly into another world. William didn’t feel so adventurous. He didn’t like the sensation of feeling an inanimate object seeming to tug at his very being, seeming to pull him out of the world he knew into he knew not what. He felt relieved when the light went on in the test room signaling the end of the session.
When he came to the coffee room, David was waiting for him, obviously excited.
“You could feel it, couldn’t you?”
“Feel what? I certainly couldn’t feel what they handed me. If it weren’t for your cheat sheet, I wouldn’t have had a clue what they put into the Feel Box.”
“Sure, but you felt something, right?”
“Yes,” William said, “But I really don’t know what. So far, it just feels strange. What am I supposed to feel?”
“I have no idea,” David answered. “All I know is that we’ve toyed with some pretty fundamental stuff in this time. I’ve done something I’ve been trying to do for years without success. The laws of physics and chemistry say that the sequence and combination of atoms that make up this molecule shouldn’t hold together at all.”
“Wait a minute! Am I putting my hand into something made up of goddamn radioactive isotopes or something? Is this going to give me cancer 10 years from now? Am I going to put my hand into that glove and find its fallen off when I try to pull it out?!”
“Calm down. No it’s not radioactive, not at all. It’s a change on a lower level.”
“What do you mean, a lower level? Lower than what?”
“Quanta and mesons, stuff like that.”
“You’re making this up!” William nearly shouted. “I’m no scientist, but I know there’s no goddamn cyclotron in this place.”
“Keep your voice down,” David said, a bit menacingly. “I’ve just gotten a little help from my friends at the university.”
“You’re nuts, you know that? You’re playing with the innards of atoms in the lab of a condom factory!?”
“True. I don’t have any choice. I not one of the anointed few who can work at CERN or someplace else with a budget in the billions. I have a few ideas, you see, that don’t require a five a mile underground perfect circle to try out. Just some unexpected consequences of fairly ordinary circumstances.”
William considered his options. He could report David to Human Relations or call 911 but, despite his shock and fear, he was still curious. It would help if he had some idea what the hell David was trying to say. He stayed put and listened.
“Unexpected consequences of ordinary circumstances,” David continued. “It is the chain of events that makes things happen, unexpected things. And what is more malleable, more capable of variation than plastic? I’ve waited a long time for this moment, for a chance to put this substance into the hands of a true Hyper. All I ask is that you give it a try.”
Whether it was his pride or his curiosity or just the simple fact that his break was over and it was time to go back to work, William found himself back in the test room. He realized he was impatient to begin “the experiment”, as he’d come to think of it. He found the pre-test tasks particularly annoying, or, more precisely, in the way, trivial impediments, little obstacles to get out of the way before he put his hands back into the gloves.
As he did so, he was instantly flooded with the enormity of the sensation of interminable emptiness. He had forgotten just how powerful and overwhelming the sensation
the quantum signatures slightly.
A couple pluses where there should be a minuses, stuff like that.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m not sure I want to be a part of this. I’m not some arctic explorer you know. I’m a condom-tester, you know, not some NASA astronaut!”
“Oh, come off it. There’s nothing like that going on here. I’ve played with this stuff myself many times and I’m still here. All my vital signs are normal, more or less. I wouldn’t be asking you to do this at all if it weren’t just that your hands are so amazingly sensitive. I know that the stuff does something, allows you to feel something that nothing else on this blue earth does, but I can’t, no pun intended, can’t put my finger on it. I need you to tell me what that is, that’s all.”
“Okay, okay. But I’m telling you, this stuff is really strange. I felt as though it were pulling me into in, like I was being absorbed right into the glove!”
“But you weren’t, were you? You’re right here talking to me. Try it again. One more test. Go with it, see what it does. If it makes you more comfortable, I’ll see if I can get the medical team to hook you up with some sensors. You know, pulse and blood pressure gauges and stuff. If it looks like something’s wrong, I’ll get the glove right off you from the control room side. But it’s ridiculous. Yes, I think you may be able to feel something pretty unique, but I don’t think you’re going to be bumping into the White Rabbit or the Good Witch of the West any time soon.”
In the end, William acceded. He didn’t want any sensors or electrodes put on him, either. He was already worried that this stunt was going to get him fired and he didn’t want to attract any more attention. Yet, when he entered his small test room and took his seat before the hole that held the glove that extended into the Feel Box, he felt unusually serious, focused, if more than a little apprehensive.
He was unaware any time passed between the moment he placed his hands in the plastic-feeling glove and the moment that he experienced nothing but empty space. Later, when he tried to remember that moment, he couldn’t, not exactly. He could remember only that that he felt as though sucked in, like a mote of sand into an immense vacuum cleaner.
He did not realize initially that his eyes were closed and that he could open them. But when did, all he saw was black, or, more accurately, he saw nothing, felt nothing. Nothing. For a moment, he believed he was falling in this emptiness, like a pebble dropped down a mine shaft, but soon realized he was not. Nor was he suspended, nor floating. He, as such, was barely there. The emptiness more than enveloped him, it included him.
Yet a part of his mind continued to work as it always had: He was a condom-tester. This was a “product” that David had designed, somehow, between his own twisted science and computers designed to play with molecular structures, to spin them and tweak them. And that part of his mind new that this “substance”, whatever it was that his hand had entered, was unique, new, unimaginable, impossible.
Perhaps it was this moment of perspective that led him to realize that the space he experienced through the glove was not exactly empty, no exactly nothing. It was not the absence of sensation as much as a completeness, a wholeness that expanded out limitlessly in all directions.
As Bill’s mind serenely pondered this seeming paradox, he found himself back answering questions, stumbling as he tried to read David’s crib sheet, not knowing whether five seconds or five hours had just gone by, trying to give a half-reasonable answer to what he was supposedly feeling in the box.. His hand was back in the test room, writing, but he had no idea how he had gotten there from the featureless absolute he’d just felt.
When the session ended, David was outside the door of the test room. He walked in silence next to William down the corridor, past the lunch room, out by a side entrance to the plant. David looked at William as though both knew William had experienced something beyond comprehension.
David looked at William and said: “Would you like to know what I think is going on?”
“I guess,” David answered blankly.
“I think it’s the edge. It’s like we’re on this Möbius Strip and because it flips around, we think we’ve got the whole thing, ‘cause we can see all the surfaces if we keep going around in circles, we’ve got three dimensions. But the fabric I’ve made is like the fabric of that strip. What you feel through the fabric isn’t the other surface of the fabric. What you feel is the space, the infinite emptiness that’s on the other side of the fabric, of reality.”
“Are you serious?”
“Partially. I mean, it’s theoretical. Do I know? Of course not. How could I? I don’t think I’m God or something. I’m just a researcher in a condom factory playing with algorithms and twisting the dials. But I did make the stuff, whatever it is, so maybe that gives me a little more weight to my crazy ideas. Whatever it is, it’s pretty phenomenal, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” William said simply. “Will there be more tests?”
“Certainly. If you’re up for it. The other testers found it too strange to give it another try. I wasn’t sure if they were afraid they’d disappear into the netherworld or if they thought they’d get hooked, like on heroin or something, but they didn’t want to try it again.”
“Good. Let’s go for it.”
A few minutes later they were back in their respective rooms, William in the Test Room with its sealed opening to the Feel Box, David back somewhere in the lab. William felt more hesitant about putting his hand into the glove this time. He understood how the others had backed off after the initial experience. It was so overwhelming, so uncanny that you did wonder if you could come back to reality, if you’d ever be “normal” again.
Nevertheless, he continued. He eased his fingers into the glove’s fingers, his palm snuggling into the palm of the polymer glove. The impact was immediate: He lost all sense of being a person in a room putting on a glove, all his senses instantly absorbed in the void that, somehow, the glove touched and he felt.
But this time, William realized that it was not simply emptiness, blackness, silence that he “saw”. Suddenly all his senses felt full, not empty. It was as though he could see the black emptiness itself.
Even more astonishing, he did not feel alone, but rather as though he were in contact with a universe of consciousness.
The next thing David knew he was being attended by a nurse from the company’s medical department who was checking him out. Pulse and blood pressure seemed okay. He felt okay, too, as far as he could tell. He was now lying on the floor but he had no idea if he’d fallen there or been put there after…After what? He did not recall “losing consciousness” but only the moment of seemingly infinite consciousness.
Dimly at first, he heard the company nurse was thinking aloud to the technicians who stood around him. Perhaps the minor stress of testing one plastic after another day in and out had been too much for him. Perhaps he needed a brief respite, a few days off, before testing more new products.
William wanted to say that he didn’t want even a moment off, that he wanted to put his hand back into the glove and touch the edge of the universe again. But he knew how that would sound and he kept his mouth shut. Besides a few days off didn’t seem like such a bad proposition.
When William came back to work a couple days later, he found David waiting for him at the employees’ entrance to the factory.
“You all right?” David asked.
“What was it like?”
“I can’t describe it. Maybe if I were a poet or a visionary or something, I could, but I can’t.”
“I’m not surprised,” David said. “I don’t think we’ll be testing that one again anytime soon.”
“Well apart from the fact that company considers that your ‘fainting spell’ might have been an allergic reaction to something in the polymer’s formula, they’ve also discovered that the stuff’s completely useless to make prophylactics out of, which is, you may recall, what the company does. It’s just another NCV – No Commercial Value – concoction of mine. Store the settings in the database and move on, they say.”
“But it’s your ideas, your stuff. Can’t you make it yourself.”
“No, I can’t. I can’t make it. Not without all the computing power this place has got, let alone the machinery that actually fabricates it. And can you imagine me applying for a job at another lab? Oh, yeh, ‘I can make stuff that’ll let you touch the edge of the universe.’ Try putting that on your resume!”
“What about the government? Wouldn’t they want to get their hands on this stuff?”
“That’s exactly why it’s a damn good thing that only you and I know what it can really do. No, that’s the last we’ll see of David’s Folly. But as long as I can show ‘reasonable progress’ toward a new version of the UltraThin that’s a little more hypoallergenic, they’ll give me enough space to play my little games with reality. I’m working on something that seems to do some pretty funny things with time. So I hope you stay on with the company, Bill. Perhaps we’ll meet again on the far side of the looking glass.”