The banging wouldn’t stop. Ronson Begay opened his eyes and squinted. Once he made sense of the image on the other side of the reinforced glass, Ronson realized he was looking at a university cop tapping on the window of the hypobaric chamber with his nightstick.
The cop stopped tapping when he saw Ronson was awake.
Ronson knitted his not-insubstantial eyebrows together and sighed as best he could in the thin air. Dolly, next to him, blinked her large brown eyes. Ronson marveled as he always did at the length of her eyelashes and ran his hands through her curly black hair.
The cop tapped the glass, harder this time, and Dolly jerked her head back.
Ronson patted Dolly’s side and sighed again as he keyed the intercom. “Equalizing pressure.” Ronson keyed the switch opening the exhaust valves. Air hissed into the chamber, the cop took an involuntary step back, and Dolly twitched her ears.
“Easy, girl.” But the rushing air made her nervous and she stood up, unfolding her legs in that fluid, effortless way llamas had and gliding upward into a standing position. She looked down at Ronson and made a soft sound in the back of her throat.
With considerably less grace, Ronson hauled himself off his Thermarest and onto his feet. A tiny feather from the wadded-up down jacket he’d been using as a pillow had worked its way onto his Social Distortion hoodie. He plucked at the feather while he waited for the room to return to ambient pressure at the high altitude physiology lab at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, located 5,003 feet above mean sea level.
The light on the console went green and Ronson opened the door. The cop took a step forward.
Ronson put his hands up. One hand held his student ID. “Officer, my name is Ronson Begay. I’m a graduate student in Dr. Garcia’s lab. If it’s okay with you, I will put Dolly away, then answer your questions.”
The cop nodded and holstered his nightstick.
Ronson led Dolly down the short hallway, the cop trailing along behind. Dolly waited while Ronson opened the gate to the llama paddock and stepped through it when he slipped her halter off. The other llamas stirred when she joined them. Ronson watched the animals settle then turned and walked across the rubber mat back to the hard tiles and bright lights of the lab.
The cop didn’t waste any time. “You want to tell me what you were doing in that, that — ”
“We call it the elevator.”
The cop looked at the hypobaric chamber. Rubber mats on the floor, stainless steel tables and lab benches, a llama-sized treadmill, and a confusion of ducting and conduit running sprouting out the top. “Don’t look much like an elevator to me.”
Ronson slipped into the explanation he’d given in university lecture halls and kindergarten classrooms. “The hypobaric chamber is a sealed room with a vacuum pump attached. Air is pumped out of the chamber until the atmospheric pressure matches that of the altitude we wish to simulate. We then perform physiological tests, usually on llamas, but sometimes on other animals, like dogs and sheep. When we’re done, we let air back into the room. That was the hissing noise you heard a few minutes ago.” He shrugged. “We call it the elevator for short because it takes us up.”
The cop’s eyes flicked back and forth between the chamber and Ronson’s face. “What were you doing in the elevator with a llama?”
“Why in the world were you doing that?”
“It’s called Russian Rest.”
The cop’s hand drifted back to rest on his nightstick. “I’d like a straight answer.”
Ronson swallowed. “I’m getting ready for Citlaltépetl.”
The cop shook his head. “Excuse me?”
“The Spanish name is Pico de Orizaba.”
“I assume pico means peak. You’re talking about some mountain in Spain?
“Which explains the llama?”
“No, sir. Llamas are from the Andes, several thousand miles to the south. Citlaltépetl is the tallest mountain in Mexico. It’s eighteen thousand five hundred feet. I’m going to try to climb it next week.” Ronson looked at his shoes. “I had Dolly in there because I was lonely and she’s my favorite. She likes it. All the llamas do. To them, it’s hot and humid down here.”
“But we’re almost a mile high.”
Ronson shrugged. “Llamas like altitude.”
“Why sleep there? Why not just go in the daytime.”
“Russian Rest is a rapid acclimatization technique. You sleep at a high altitude, then return to a lower elevation to let your body recover.” Ronson rubbed his face. “I really want the climb to go well, so I’m doing everything I can think of. My plan was to spend the night here, then go home and do nothing for the rest of the weekend while my body adjusts. I fly out Monday.” Ronson paused. “As long as I’m not in jail.”
The cop looked at his watch. “You’re really a grad student in this lab?”
“Yes, sir. I can show you research papers, or pull up my name in the student database.”
The cop shook his head. “Nah, just close up and get out of here.” He spread his thumb and middle finger and rubbed his temples. “If the rest of the guys hear I busted a Ph.D. student with a llama named Dolly, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Prompted by @h.r._parker (feather, llama, elevator).
Leave me a prompt in the comments: a living thing, an inanimate object, a location.
Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash