“Aedan! Over here, my boy.”
Aedan turned at the shrill cry of his name. Few men knew it, and one that did, Jim Daly, wouldn’t have used it. To him, a slap on the back, or a spit plug of tobacco, or a “Getovahereyoubasterd” was a standard greeting. So he was surprised to see Dr. Smith balancing on a plank, holding a wooden crate under his arm.
Aedan excused himself, with no regret, from the sand pipe, and maneuvered between the planks and entry shafts, tools and mud to reach Dr. Smith near the foot of the air lock.
“Dr. Smith?” What the hell is he doing here? And why does he have birds?
“Let’s go to section four. There’s no work in there today, am I correct.”
“Yes, sir. We’re working here in the middle today.”
“Good. Take this and follow me.”
Aedan had become accustomed to odd jobs in the caisson—a stranger worksite could not be found in New York—but he could not understand what a man of medicine could possible want down there. Patients came to him after all. But Aedan accepted the crate and followed the surgeon.
They ducked through the doorway cut in the thick wooden supporting wall, bouncing along the planks spanning the muck. They crossed the chamber and into the next. It glowed with a peculiar white light. Seldom had Aedan seen an empty section with not a single laborer or engineer at work. There was almost a serenity to be found there, although it was a setting wholly unnatural--and one could hardly forget the immense weight bearing down.
Dr. Smith followed the wall and paused at one of the massive brackets angled between the wall and ceiling. “This will do.” Aedan wedged the crate between the bracket and the wall. Hanging his medicine bag from one of the tall hooks usually used for whale-oil lamps, Dr. Smith proceeded to pull out an instrument.
“Alright, please open the cage and pull one of them out. Loosen the wire there and it should just … Mind the other doesn’t escape!”
Aedan stretched his hand through the narrow opening, grasped a fluttering feathery thing, and pulled it out in a flash. Looking down he saw the beady eyes of a bewildered pigeon. It struggled against his fingers for only a second, but Aedan could feel its nervous heartbeat.
“Attaboy—now just hold him still a moment …”
Aedan watched as the doctor stretched out one of the bird’s wings.
“Now, the pressure down here this week is about twenty-pounds per square inch. As this caisson descends, the river and river bed increase their weight on the frame. Consequently, the compressors must increase the pressure of air inside the frame to counter that weight. The current trend is about two pounds—that is, an additional two pounds of air pressing on each inch of surface in this chamber—for every foot the caisson descends. The compressors can handle it. And the Chief Engineer assures me the caisson can handle it. ‘Twice as strong as the Brooklyn caisson—four times stronger than it need be,’ he says like a proud father.”
Aedan tried to comprehend this sudden rush of information hitting him like the pressure in the airlock just an hour before. How can someone know all that and talk so easily about it? Like it was just something he heard on the street.
Dr. Smith noted Aedan’s look and its resemblance to the confused, slightly petrified, but otherwise content pigeon. He carried on.
“But the pressure of this air can be difficult for you and the other men to handle. And if nothing else, you know exactly how that feels. And that’s why, with your experience, you’re qualified to assist today—and in the future if you like.”
“I would, sir. If I can help someone else avoid that same kind of pain from working down here.”
Dr. Smith smiled. “The conditions present are well known, but what occurs to the body in them—that is still a mystery. I want to see if the concentration of oxygen in this atmosphere …”
How am I supposed to know what any of that means?
“Oxygen: the molecules of the air that you breathe to give life to your flesh.”
With a nod Aedan feigned understanding, and Dr. Smith continued.
“I want to know how the excess of oxygen affects the natural healing process of the flesh.”
With a movement swift and sure, the surgeon made an incision under the birds wing. Aedan saw a smear of blood on the scalpel edge.
“There. And the next, please?” Dr. Smith wiped his brow with a damp shirtsleeve. “Let’s hurry up, now. The idea wasn’t to experiment on myself.”
They repeated the procedure.
“How will you know what happens? Or what it means if something does?”
“There’s a pair of birds in the hospital. I've made similar incisions on them. At the end of the week, I will compare the wounds with these birds. If there’s any difference down here from the natural healing process at the surface that might help me understand what this air does to you.”
Aedan paused latching the crate door.
“To you workers,” Dr. Smith continued, his brow damper still.
“Aye. God knows we need someone looking out for us. Otherwise, we’re just … little bleeding birds stuck in a crate. Not knowing thing a damn thing outside of what we are, what we were born to be.”
Dr. Smith was silent. He reached for the crate, but Aedan, the taller of the two, grabbed it first.
“On the hook, right?”
Dr. Smith removed his bag, and Aedan looped one of the slats over the hook’s end until the crate was firmly affixed. Aedan peered into the crate, now at eyelevel. “What are you going to do with’em?”
“After I examine the wounds and take blood samples, they will be exterminated,” Dr.Smith said, regaining his professional detachment, as he made for the chamber exit.
“You reckon I could have’em then? All ov’em?”
Dr. Smith paused at the doorway.
“Even after a week down here,” Aedan continued, “they’ll be good eating yet.”