Dukkha

A much shorter version of Dukkha appeared in Pipeline Magazine in 2006, and I rewrote it for Clarion West in 2007, but it remained an unsuccessful attempt at a spiraling narrative structure. 

I still haven’t cracked the problem, and I now think that a short story was probably the wrong medium for this narrative. However, I’m very fond of the characters, and the idea of the skinsuit. I hung onto the story for a while, hoping I’d find another use for the ideas, but the time has come to just shove it out there. Enjoy it! And if you don’t, well, life is suffering after all.


I don’t know how I thought it would end. I suppose I knew it would end, though. Everything does, you don’t have to tell me that, but death is one of those things your mind coats with grease, making sure you never get too firm a hold on it. It’s the key to the door that opens onto the abyss, and I’m not ready to turn it in the lock just yet. I don’t mind that my grip is slippery. I let my mind fall back from abyss, door and key, fall, swoop into flight, and take me back around to the beginning.

Freeze frames: A young lawyer nervously accepting her first graduate job. An explosion in a chemicals factory in Kent, or perhaps an interview with a dour and excellent doctor… A grey-eyed girl weeping silently in a white room, the pink mottling of her skin the only colour? Gulls wheeling in the grey sky outside the window. A touch in darkness. Moments in my life, moments in hers, turning points: there were so many times I could have done something different, chosen a different path.

All the same, there aren’t so very many endings. No matter how I turn the events in my head, I can’t fall, swing or fly away from this outcome. The here and now, this reality so solid and unarguable. Sitting alone at a battered kitchen table, the scents of polish and wet dog competing in the air above the terracotta tiled floor. One hand closing around the newspaper page so tightly it creases and threatens to tear, to dissolve in the next instant into fragments, or papier mache, lubricated by the tears that wait in my throat. My rings; engagement, wedding, eternity; cutting into the flesh beneath cracked and swollen knuckles. Oh, maybe I could pretend it ended sooner, if I closed my eyes and breathed really deeply. With the broken child becoming the world’s first real-life superhero; Alice, my Alice, walking away from me, away in her new skin, away to be somebody else. I could try to imagine she lived happily ever after… But I suspect that beginnings and endings aren’t important except in stories; in life they’re arbitrary. Everything is in the middle: middles are where things happen; middles are where we make a difference. Rip at them and recombine them as I might – and I do – the events are history. I am still here, the dishes are still dirty, the dog needs a bath and Alice is dead.

Alice is dead. On page two of the Sunday paper; a picture of her taken on the space station before her last dukkhae mission, the one that finally cost her her life. She is serious, as always, and determined. Grim, even, yet calm. Confident. Dependable. Did she know she was going to die? She must have been prepared for it; even superwomen have their limits. Twenty years of throwing herself into the most dangerous situations the world could offer her, death at her shoulder all that time. But there’s no sign of fear in this image. She is a formidable looking woman, a woman who knows her job. They can’t have anticipated that catastrophic loss of pressure; the dukkhae are no better than the rest of us with a space suit between them and the world outside. Their skinsuits weren’t developed to work without atmosphere. The supermen undone.

I don’t know how to make sense of this. Wheel away, return, cut and combine it one more time. Think about happier times. Were there happier times? I recall Alice as I first met her. No, before that. The consultant who briefed me on the case: the excellent, dour Mr. Hansford. Me: young, inexperienced, trying not to be intimidated as we went through the notes. I’d known about the Oak Heath plant explosion of course; it was all over the news. A picture to superimpose on page two: Alice before the accident: the sweetest, most innocent picture the press could get their mitts on, flashed on the television news, everywhere on the web. No hint at all of the woman in the current picture, the one which I have (I distantly notice) just put three fingernails through, no indication that the butterfly would metamorphose into a bullet. Sole survivor, only twenty-one, and pretty too: Christmas and birthday in one, for the media. And they kept it running for months, reporting on her progress, or lack of it. And then, when it all seemed to have finally died down, the skinsuit. Revolutionary technology, this will give tragic Alice Maitland a new chance at life! And of course it did.

Dr. Hansford, grave, authoritative: “This is a very complicated case, Ms Duval. We’ve given you all the background information there of course. You can see that Ms Maitland’s injuries are not as extensive as might have been expected, considering the manner in which her colleagues died. She has severe burns to her lower legs and a compound fracture of the left tibia. However, obviously we are primarily concerned with the nerve damage caused by exposure to Metaxyl.”

“The papers are calling it chemical leprosy.”

He tapped his fingertips against his upper lip. “Not altogether inaccurate, Ms. Duval. She has neuropathic anaesthesia, which unfortunately we have been unable to halt; the damage is spreading through her body and we expect there will be total loss of sensation eventually. Luckily, rather as with leprosy, the Metaxyl is unable to penetrate into the central nervous system. There is no danger of mortality. Unfortunately, leprosy is treatable and Metaxyl exposure is not.”

“How is she?”

“Alice is no longer in shock and her reliance on the drugs we’d been giving her is minimal. She’s undergone a severe trauma and the psychological effects could take time to manifest, but her psych team consider that she is mentally sound enough to make a decision regarding participation in your trial.”

“And her nerves won’t regenerate? You’re certain?”

“We haven’t seen a case like this before, and the trials of the chemical tell us nothing, as all the test animals exposed to the gas had to be destroyed before any recovery was observed.”

I remember shrugging. My lack of feeling astonishes me now; pushes air from my lungs. It was Alice’s choice though. Alice always had a choice.

Seeing Alice, a small, pink figure hunched in her white-sheeted bed, in that white, white room in Westminster hospital, I turned first to the window. Rain-heavy clouds behind glass reflected the room back on itself, revealing little of the grey November day but the restless motion of the gulls. I thought of those test animals. Mice? Rabbits? Dogs perhaps? How afraid were they, as the feeling leached out of their extremities and the gas stole the taste from their tongues? What comfort had they been offered? Don’t worry, just a few more months of this and we’ll put you to sleep? I felt cold, though the room was overheated and airless.

I shook the chill off, told myself I had something better to offer Alice; a new chance at feeling, in a way nobody had ever experienced before.

“I’m Sandra Duval.” I said, and held out my hand. Alice ignored it, sitting up and taking a set of headphones from her ears and folding her hands on her ribcage, just left of centre.

“I’ll be your liaison and interpreter, if you accept the contract.” Still she said nothing. “How are you doing?” I persisted.

She spoke to a spot on the far wall. “I can’t get used to it. Not knowing if the headphones are in or out except by the sound. You’d think it would be enough, but you don’t know how much you rely on those little bits of feedback you get, you know? I can’t wait until it starts to come back.” She shrugged, and finally turned to look at me. “My legs are getting better. I didn’t feel any pain anyway, so that’s a blessing. I suppose they’d be itching now, so I’m spared that as well.”

She laughed dryly. Her voice was steady and rational, but her eyes were empty.

“I suppose you want me to tell you about the accident.”

“No, actually, that’s all right. I know everything I need to know. I’m here to answer any questions you may have. You’ve had the information pack about the skinsuit, of course. Is there anything you’d like to ask?”

“Will I really be able to do everything it says in there?”

“Not right away. Your brain will have to learn to interpret the data its being fed by the suit’s sensors, which will take a long time. It might take years for you to develop to your full potential. Some aspects of the suit’s design may be harder to integrate than others, which is why we’ll start with the basic functions: pressure, friction, temperature and so on. Once you have full control we’ll start to switch on the super-functions such as the infra-red sensors. You must be prepared for it to take a considerable period of time.”

She frowned. “I don’t care how long it takes. I just don’t want to be like this forever.” She gestured, taking in the bandages on her legs and hands. “The injuries will heal, right? But the skin thing. It’s like bits of me are just being rubbed out.”

We agreed that I would return in a week to take Alice to Tokyo, assuming Dr. Hansford was ready to discharge her.

“Are you sure there’s nobody who wants to travel over with you? GemQuix will pay for someone to accompany you and accommodate them for up to a month.”

“I know. It’s in the pack. No, there’s nobody.” Her eyes tightened, betraying the first trace of emotion I’d seen, but I was already standing and decided not to pry.

“It seems so strange,” she said, as I was leaving, “that I can’t feel anything up here either. Even when I think about their bodies all around me.” She tapped her head. “Or here.” she indicated her heart. “It’s as if I’ve turned into a shell, or some kind of robot. Or there’s like a barrier between me and what happened.”

“I’m sure it’s normal.”

“That’s what they tell me,” she said, and fumbled her headphones back into her ears.

We’d been in Tokyo a week or more before Alice’s façade failed again. She’d been calm on the plane, slept most of the way, and showed no interest in her room at the lab. She expressed no disappointment at not being able to explore Tokyo; the only thing she cared about was when the fittings for the suit would begin. I cajoled her through the endless days of psych tests and medical tests, translating for the Japanese doctors and scientists.

Alice smoked all the Camel Lights she’d bought at the airport and switched to smoking Rin cigarettes and drinking endless cups of sencha, but she learned no Japanese, and she shied away from socialising with even the British and American scientists at the facility. I became her only companion, though our conversations rarely moved away from the progress of the trial or me chastising Alice for how much she was smoking.

“Always the professional,” she sighed one night as we loitered by the back steps to the facility. The sharp light cast by the security floods haloed her head and left her face in darkness. She drew deeply on her cigarette and blew the noxious cloud towards me. “Whatever vices you have, I’m not allowed to see them, right? It isn’t fair, you know. You know everything about me and all I get is that stony expression. That sympathetic air. Every day you watch me like a lover, and you pick my brains with your clever fingers. But you don’t really care about me. I’m just a job to you aren’t I? Well I don’t need a liaison officer. I wish you’d go away, and not come back. I don’t need this any more.”

She put out her Rin and strode inside. But she couldn’t dismiss me; I wasn’t hers to dismiss.

The day before she was to be fitted with the connections for the suit, I asked Alice how she felt about the coming operation, and we talked about her anaesthesia.

“They say there’s still some hope. But I can see it in their eyes. They never believed it, Sandra, they don’t believe I’ll ever get any better. And here -” she pressed her hands against a spot below her left breast; one of the few places she still had some sensation. “It’s getting smaller. I’m losing it. It’s going, and I’ll never feel anything again.” She started to cry.

“Do you still want to go ahead?” I asked. “We can delay the procedure if you want to wait a little longer, see what happens. We’ll fly you back to London if you’d like to see the team at Westminster again.” I tried to incline my head in a way that would indicate detached but sincere concern. My body had become a mannequin that I could move only into awkward poses.

Alice’s face crumpled and a wail came out of her mouth that tore through me like my children’s crying would later; the kind of desperate cry you’d do anything, anything, to stop. I put one hand on her arm. Alice flung it aside, screaming:

“What the fuck do you think? What fucking choice have I got, now? Just get the fuck away from me, leave me alone.”

All the air went out of her then, and she folded like a collapsing balloon, into a small heap of limbs on the floor. She crossed her arms over her head, and rocked. I sat down beside her, and said nothing. What could I have said?

It is hard to reconcile that tiny, devastated figure with the Alice that became the leader of the dukkhae. The strong, brave, powerful Alice, invisible Alice who could see in the dark and hear with her fingertips. Saviour of the nation. Hero. But I know that under that suit, under the black and grey of the sensor nodes and bridges, that girl remained. Just as the girl I was has remained, under her own layers of business suits and lipstick and motherhood. Though my scars are far more mundane than Alice’s. I wonder how many fresh ones Alice had added to the collection, since I last saw under that suit? Anyway, I’d thought I was seeing Alice at her most vulnerable, that night, but I was wrong.

No, not yet. I’m not ready for that memory. The fingers of my thoughts slide away; whatever I was about to recall is already lost to me. Slip through time to another memory, another frame.

Alice could have asked for a new liaison, I suppose, but she never did. I stayed with her until after the skinsuit trials were completed and declared a great success. About six months in, she gave me a demonstration. She took me into her practise room, a basement gymnasium with a mirror along one wall. She led me down the stairs, carrying a large holdall, moving catlike and looking alien despite the jeans and sweater she’d put on over the skinsuit. Her shaven head was covered apart from eyes and mouth. A slight bulge at the back of her neck betrayed the presence of the shunt, a cluster of tiny needles that fed input from the suit into the web of data feeds they’d implanted in her skull. I’d seen it every day for weeks, but walking down the steps behind her, its strangeness was so compelling I had to force my hand into my pocket so as not to reach up and touch it.

The gym was deathly quiet. Alice hovered by the light switch next to the open door.

“Stop there.”

She flicked the switch and I stood alone in the shaft of light penetrating the doorway. Then she closed the door behind her and suddenly I was afraid.

“Doesn’t this frighten you?” I asked. For as long as I’d known her she’d been terrified of the dark, and of silence.

“Not any more. I’m still learning to read it properly, but I’m finally getting the hang of the infra-red. I can’t deal with the sonar too well yet; it gives me a headache. But it’ll come.”

As she talked, she moved closer until she was standing just in front of me. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her breathing. She unzipped the holdall and handed me three juggling balls. They were hard and cold and heavy.

“I’m going to stand about two metres away from you. Do you think you can aim at my voice?” I nodded automatically, and before I could say “Yes,” she said “Good.”

She caught all those balls, again and again, even when I deliberately threw them wide. I asked her to describe what she saw, but she laughed and said she couldn’t put it into words that would make sense to me.

“Think what we can do with this though, Sandra. Think of the wonderful things I’ll be able to do. I’ll help people. I’ll do exploration, research, I’ll be able to see things nobody else can see, I’ll experience the world in ways nobody else ever has.” She sounded excited, joyful even. My pulse sounded loud in my ears in the dark and quiet.

When she’d had enough, she came close to me and startled me by taking my hand. “I can feel you now, Sandra. I can feel your hand better than you can feel mine. The shape of it. The texture. How damp it is. How cold. And more – I can smell you with my fingers. I can hear you with them; I can hear your pulse beating in your veins.” She danced her fingers across my inner wrist. I stiffened. I opened my grip. “You can’t- I can’t-”

But the time for that was past. She carried on as though I hadn’t spoken.

“But you know what?” She dropped my hand. “It doesn’t matter to me any more. Your hand, my hand, there’s no connection. You’re not feeling what I’m feeling. All that touching, rubbing skins together. It disgusts me.” She left me and ascended the steps to the light switch. Her hand in the suit had been dry and rough, like snakeskin. Later, it occurred to me that a blindfold would have provided just as good a demonstration.

In Tokyo, the bandages she’d had on her hands in Westminster had come off to reveal scars; long, raking scars, and round, purple scars, where she’d scratched herself until she bled, and put out cigarettes on her hands, willing herself to feel something. The pain she’d longed for. Pain the working suit had restored to her. It was essential that she be able to feel pain; nothing gets a body out of danger quicker. But Alice took that pain and defined herself by it.

She told me once that she couldn’t learn to take pleasure in the sensations the suit fed her. Couldn’t accept the skinsuit as her own. That was my failure; I should have helped her, but I didn’t know how. She knew, but my own pride, my own clanking sense of professional morality, prevented me from giving her the help she needed.

No tears. I open my fists, drop the torn paper onto the table, stand up and put my mug by the sink, wander aimlessly into the hall.

The skinsuit concept wasn’t intended for military use, originally. That was her idea. GemQuix developed the fabric for use with robots and funded the trials to adapt the suit for use in prosthetics. They had no choice but to call a halt to the trial before it was completed; GemQuix cancelled Alice’s contract when they discovered the damage she was doing to the suit. Alice wasn’t keen on giving it back.

So, she contacted the military and pitched the idea of using the suits in the war; the agglomeration of smaller conflicts and terrorist activities that had reached critical mass and flowered into full-scale global conflict eighteen months before the explosion at the Oakheath plant. That’s what led to the External Task Force breaching a hundred copyrights and winning the case on international security grounds. The ETF took her on and trained her, and she threw herself into the programme with maniacal fervour. They enhanced the suits until the wearers were invisible to the naked eye, to heat detection. They put Alice in the front line, at the head of a corps that she called the dukkhae, elite spies, saboteurs, assassins, and occasional disaster recovery operatives. It made her a hero, and gave her a perfect way to spend twenty years committing suicide in the name of her country.

The last time I heard from her was just after the second Baring Straight crisis. It was about eight months after Jen was born. I didn’t expect her to visit. She hadn’t acknowledged the wedding invitation, nor answered any of my letters in a couple of years. Never Christmas cards – but then Alice wasn’t big on organised religion. A certain vague Buddhism was as close as she got, and she rejected most of that. But she sent a postcard. March 2015, franked in Istanbul. I still have it. It’s stuck on the wall in the downstairs loo, along with about a thousand other pretty mementos. Seventeen years of family life, all lovingly unfolded in this house and dutifully tacked to the toilet wall. The picture on the front is of an eight-pointed star with a spiral radiating from its centre. The arms of the spiral turn into the roots and branches of a tree as they fade towards the edges of the picture. It’s beautiful and there’s nothing at all to make it stand out from the rest. I edge it free of its blu-tack very gently, so there’ll be no creases at the corners to give me away.

Congratulations it says, in small, neat, round letters. You must be so very afraid.

And so we come to what must be the middle of the story. That final memory. The one I don’t want to open the door to any more than to my own death, ah, but we’re here now and the pain can’t get any greater. Understanding demands acknowledgement of pain, isn’t that how it goes? Growth demands sacrifices.

After the operation to insert the shunt, before she first donned the suit, I visited her in the recovery room. She didn’t greet me when I entered, didn’t acknowledge my presence at all.

I sat next to her bed and drew the chair in close. I can picture it exactly, and if I close my eyes and breathe in I can smell the disinfectant. I can feel the hard nodes of the headphones as I drew them from her ears, and the soft stubble where they’d shaved her head, like velvet against my fingers. Her hand grabbed my wrist and her eyes locked onto mine. She looked different without her hair: both younger and older. Innocent, and grim.

“It’s going, Sandra. It’s almost gone.”

She released my wrist and rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling. Clumsily, she drew down the sheet and lifted her pyjama top so I could see the rough circle drawn on her skin, the size of a teacup rim, the stark demarcation of the last patch of skin with which she could feel. She ran her fingers over the spot. Her hands trembled.

“I asked Charlie to come, but he won’t. I’m never going to see him again.” Tears leaked from the corners of both her eyes and ran, unheeded, down to her ears. As I’d suspected, there was someone back in London, someone who’d failed to cope, someone who’d let her down. Anger heated my neck and belly.

Without looking at me, Alice said, “Give me your hand.”

I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know why I did it, when it went against all my training. I will be fired for this, I remember thinking that, but still I put my hand in hers. I couldn’t tell if the shaking were all hers or if my hand was shaking too. Slowly, she placed my hand against her body.

“All I wanted was for someone to touch me. Someone who cares about me, not a doctor, forever poking with filaments and making notes. Not a nurse, washing me like just another piece of equipment that has to be kept clean. All I wanted was a lover’s touch.”

I pulled my hand back. My guts twisted.

“Alice, I can’t do this. It breaks every rule in the book.”

“Kiss me, Sandra. Kiss me here where I can feel it, give me something to remember when all the feeling’s gone.” She turned to look at me. She must have read something in my face. “I know you love me. I don’t know how I know, but it’s true, isn’t it?”

“I can’t love you Alice.”

“Kiss me.”

I couldn’t take my eyes from that blue ink circle, the white skin within it, the line of her ribs showing through, the swell of her breast just above it, nipple barely covered by the green cotton of her pyjama top. I realised that I was shaking, it was me, and I realised, too, that if I did as she asked it wouldn’t stop there. I wouldn’t be able to brush my lips against that soft skin and walk away. I wanted to sweep her in my arms and kiss her mouth, her eyes, kiss the tears away, run my hands over her body. I closed my eyes and shook my head.

“No, Alice. It wouldn’t be right.”

Wouldn’t be right. Could anything have been more right? If I’d known then that she would start to hurt herself again, punishing both her own skin and the pseudo-skin we’d given her, if I’d realised that my refusal would drive her down the path that led to her abandoning her humanity, to her embrace of suffering because she’d forgotten how to feel pleasure, to her awful misunderstanding, misappropriation of something – skinsuit, dukkha – meant to make people better, would I have bent my head and done as she asked? I don’t know. By the time I realised the path she’d taken, it was too late. That last circle had closed down to nothing, and the suit was her only way to feel. A skin she never learned to love as her own. The only joy the joy of danger, and pain, and death. And now, as I walk back into the kitchen and lay this last memory on the table, and replace the last photograph of Alice in the scrapbook, light a Rin and look down at my shaking hands, I can still her voice in my head.

Life is suffering.

Kiss me.

My thoughts cease their slick, sickening waltz, come to rest in that moment, on that coin-sized circle of skin, on Alice’s grey eyes full of hurt and hope. The abyss rises up and forces open the door; I have no choice, no say in the matter, after all. It forces itself out through my mouth, and I crumple to the floor, arms wrapped around the table leg, where I sit until the dog comes to find out what the matter is. Somehow, I fail to die.

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