Sunday, December 13, 2009

Part 4 of "Outside" (Final Part)

When Adam woke up, he saw that Chris was gone. The walls were solid, and the small window showed that he was traveling through regular space again, with its strands of stars. He checked the display and saw that it was set for a stop exactly where they had started, a few miles from Skylab C.

He was out of that nightmare. He felt like he’d had a delusion, that he’d gone mad and imagined the whole event. But Chris had been claimed. Somewhat solid evidence that something truly amazing had happened out there.

Why was everything else intact? How was it that he’d escaped that turbulent world unaffected? Hopefully the cockpit camera would resolve whether it had all truly occurred.

The bands of light outside his window disappeared, replaced with the regular speckle of starry space. He was home. Squinting, Adam could make out Skylab C in the distance.

Yearning for the sound of another person’s voice, Adam immediately radioed in.

Long minutes passed before a response came in. “This is Skylab C, state your identification.”

A male voice? Where was Rachel? Had they even had enough time to get another astronaut in there with her?

“This is the Encounter. Adam Neville speaking. We’ve lost Chris Worth.”

Minutes rolled by again without acknowledgement. Then, “Sir, come in for docking please.”

Adam fumbled with the computer interface, and the ship eventually closed with the station’s docking module. The small vessel shook with the connection. Adam unstrapped himself, and clicked his faceplate shut. He then floated a few feet to the airlock, and proceeded with the task of verifying a proper connection.

A sensation of disembodiment fell on Adam, and he knew the man that had answered his radio signal was waiting on the other side of the coupling doors. The new astronaut was perplexed, even nervous. Adam knew this, and wondered why he was so sure.

The door opened, and a dark-haired, tan-skinned man in a navy blue jumpsuit hovered there. He was frowning, his lips tight. He gestured for Adam to lower his faceplate, and Adam complied.

“Dr. Adam Neville?” the man asked, unnecessarily.

“Yes. Where’s Rachel Hanson?”

The man hesitated. “Why she’s down on Earth. Houston, I think.”

It was Adam’s turn to show skepticism. On Earth? “What’s going on here?”

“My name is Patrick Marshall, I’ve been here working on the new Alcubierre drive. We thought we lost you. Five years ago.”

Adam’s limbs felt suddenly heavy, and his mind reeled at the consequences of being away so long. If that were true, that time had somehow gotten skewed by the accidental trip beyond material space, then everything here would have changed. The project would be completely ruined at the perceived loss of two astronauts. It was surprising that this man was even still working on a drive at all. Probably for robotic exploration, not manned.

Patrick waved for Adam to follow him into the station. Adam sluggishly followed. A swarming understanding of Patrick’s state of mind filled him. The astronaut was frightened now.

But how could he know this?

“I think you’d better transfer the ship’s data,” Adam said, hoping the man’s mood might stop flooding his senses if he was given something to do.

Patrick started patching through information from the Encounter, and Adam laboriously discarded his spacesuit in the next room.

Five years. How had Kasi handled that, or Carol? Or his parents, and everyone else that had expected him back on Earth after a very brief mission? Oddly enough, the more he thought about it the more he seemed to understand how they were.

Adam gritted his teeth when, without warning, impressions of his family whirled in his head. Kasi was healthy, but sad, deeply sad. Carol felt lost, nervous. Her grades had dropped. Adam slammed a fist in the paneled wall, pushing him across the room. How could he know all this? It didn’t make sense. Chris’ family was hurt as well. Disappointed that he’d been lost to one of his last missions.

With a low whine, Adam launched himself into the work lab. He had to keep moving, get his head straight by getting down to business. As he entered the room, he was taken aback by the sight on one of the monitors.

Mouth agape, Patrick was watching Chris Worth vibrating and distorting on a playback of the inside of the Encounter’s cockpit. Patrick slowly turned to Adam, his white-knuckled hands gripping a handhold.

Proof. In some ways it was a great relief to know that the surreal experience he’d endured had been recorded. He hadn’t gone completely crazy out there. It had all really happened.

Before Patrick could make a comment on the video, Adam ordered the baffled astronaut to get Rachel Hanson on the radio immediately. Leaving the recording running, the man changed stations and began communicating with Houston. His hands were trembling, and sweat flecked off his brow to float slowly around him in a moist halo.

Houston came on, agitated. They wanted to talk to Adam, and were ignoring Patrick’s request to speak to Rachel.

“Look,” Adam said, leaning toward the radio console, “I don’t know who this is, but it’s vital that I speak to Rachel Hanson. Get her out of bed, into the country, whatever, just get her on this damn radio!”

Adam flicked off the radio and turned to Patrick. The cabin seemed to buzz around the astronaut, as though its fundamental particles strove to come apart, making Adam feel dizzy. Worry crossed Patrick’s features. Of course he was worried, Adam thought, this is all damned weird to him. The man had grown up in Maine, and had spent his childhood getting pestered by bullies, until he’d grown bigger than them. He’d gotten scholarships, bursaries, all the opportunities, and had followed his dream to work in space. He’d come up to the station hoping to discover what had gone wrong with the Encounter mission, not to be confronted by an astronaut that was believed long dead. This was all information Adam couldn’t possibly know, but he was certain it was correct.

Spinning away from Patrick, Adam clutched his head. The walls, the station, even the vacuum outside, it was all too dispersed. It was becoming unbearable.

“Take that video, Patrick,” Adam said, trying to keep his voice calm, “and send it to Rachel Hanson. Send all the information. Do it now.” His grave, shaky tone was enough to make Patrick rush to the computers and immediately begin transmitting everything down to Earth.

Adam’s vision shook, and his mind’s eye showed Rachel racing through the Nasa compound. Moments later her voice came on the radio. “Adam, is that you? My God, are you alright?”

The small communication screen blipped on, and Rachel’s face, usually composed, was now alight with astonishment.

“Rach, we went outside. We traveled faster than the stuff our universe is made of. Chris, he’s not with me. He’s not dead. He came back, another time.” He was blurting it out, and knew it was completely true. Images of sand dunes, and a bright, unusual star up above. Chris had made it back, but not in this era. Time had been non-linear in that pulling void, and Chris had embraced it, had used it to find his way back at his own leisure.

Tears fell from Rachel’s eyes, and Adam sensed the full strength of her emotion, and shed tears of his own.

“Adam,” she said, “What the hell happened?”

He sought unity. This realm of existence was exposed, shredded, lost. Unnatural.
“Tell them I’ll be gone for a while,” Adam said. “Tell Kasi I won’t be gone forever. She’ll understand soon.”

Adam snatched a handhold and then propelled himself toward the lab’s exit. Patrick followed, his intention clearly to prevent him from gaining access to the Encounter again. But with a mental flick, Adam paralyzed the young astronaut and went on his way. Back outside.

The End

The foregoing is excerpted from Outside by A. J. Seguin. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the author.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Part 3 of "Outside"

Adam regained consciousness to find that the drive was still running. Without waiting, Adam slapped the shutdown button, and the drive immediately stopped.

Nausea swept over Adam. He fought it down, alarmed at the prospect of vomiting inside his helmet.

“Chris, can I open my helmet? Do we have air?” He remembered that the suits were only precautions, and that the environmental controls should still be active, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

“Yes,” Chris said, opening his own helmet visor and vomiting into a nearby trash receptacle. Adam did the same. They sat there for a minute, trying to overcome their queasiness. Why were they sick? The bubble wasn’t supposed to affect its cargo, and if it did, the strong tidal forces would rip them apart, not cause them to bring up their space food. And what had happened to make them lose consciousness?

“How far are we?” Adam asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his thick glove.

Chris spent nearly a minute snapping from interface to interface before turning to Adam. “No information.”

Adam clenched his teeth as vomit threatened to come up again. No information? What did that mean? They shouldn’t have pushed the drive’s limits. Something had gone wrong. They’d gone too far. Had they exited the Milky Way?

He looked out the window. Blackness. But there was something odd about it, as though it tugged at his gaze.

Turning to look at Chris, Adam suddenly felt a deep fatigue come over him. His eyelids lowered, and an abysmal sleep took him away from consciousness once more.

Adam awoke to the acrid smell of vomit. He felt hot in his suit, and the air, despite the ship’s perfect systems, felt muggy. Eye gunk fought against his efforts to open his eyes. He’d been asleep a while. He brought up his hand to rub his face, and his plastic-tipped thumb smashed into his right eye. He blinked repeatedly to remove the pain.

Through cloudy eyes he looked at Chris. The sight made him yelp in terror.

The mission commander, sitting facing Adam, was vibrating at phenomenal speeds. His mouth was open wide, too wide, and his eyes were unfocused. The shaking was unsteady, and he would lurch forward and then back, always rapidly vibrating.

Adam recoiled in his seat, trying to get away from the abomination. What was making him move like that? It looked like the man was stuck in a paint-shaking machine. As Adam watched Chris he could see that there were strange glitches in the movement. The man seemed stuck in some sort of loop, going backward and forward in motion.

Sweat poured from Adam’s forehead, his arms straining to keep himself away from Chris. What terrible thing had happened to them? Was it the drive, or this unknown, sucking-black place outside that had warped Chris? Where were they?

No information, the mission commander had said. Adam took his eyes off Chris for just a moment to look at the main cockpit display. He’d been briefed on how to work the drive, and to even know all the controls that had been manufactured for it, and surely enough the screen showed him nothing of any use. The air control systems were working perfectly, the ship was quiet, powered down. It couldn’t be the drive.

It was this place.

“We’re outside,” came a tremulous voice from nowhere in particular, startling Adam.
“Chris?” Adam shouted, watching the vibrating man.

A faint voice reverse-echoed into being again, “We’re farther than light, farther than matter. We’re outside it all.”

The words weren’t coming from Chris’ body, but from somewhere inside Adam.

“Outside the Milky Way?” Why was he asking? How could Chris, or whatever had become of him, know?

More wraithlike echoes, then, “Beyond our universe. We’ve gone past the expansion of our universe, friend. We were faster than its rim.”

A peculiar, and not unpleasant, sensation washed over Adam. An all-consuming sense of intimacy, of closeness to another person. It was Chris. Adam’s panic dimmed in an instant, replaced by this unexpected and warm connection to his colleague.

The voice came in more clearly now, more deeply imbedded. “We’ve left the dispersion of the Big Bang behind. We’re outside time and space. There is cohesion here beyond imagining.”

Adam’s perception pulsed out suddenly, and he felt Chris, the metal walls, the instruments, and the drive, combine with his consciousness. The inanimate materials displayed their molecular construction in vast detail, and as he absorbed more, he began to conceive of their quantum structure, and was able to understand all its intricacies. To his astonishment, separate parts of the ship, including Chris and himself, seemed interwoven at a level beyond human inspection, deeper than blipping quarks. But he finally resisted, balking at the eerie experience, and reeled in his mind. Panic returned.

He was shivering now, staring at Chris. Mental dilation tugged at the edges of his mind, but it was too strange, too frightening in its intimacy, for him to seek it out again.

Chris’ body had begun to change, and was now warping uncontrollably, shivs of him dashing against the walls. Piping on the ceiling wobbled when the distorted mission commander came in contact with it, and then began stretching toward him, as though magnetically attracted. Adam’s gut tightened when he noticed paneling begin to vibrate in tandem with Chris.

The whole ship was imploding, and he was stuck in the middle of it.

Acting fast, Adam tapped at the ship’s display, ordering it to turn around and face the way they had come in. Contracted space was straight-line travel, a detail Adam was hoping held true at this very moment. If they were actually outside the universe, beyond the reach of light, and therefore visual cues, he would have to trust in the ship’s precision orienting to drive right back into the thick of the inflationary universe.

After a few seconds, the ship instruments indicated that they had turned, not based on any external information, but on simple mechanical activation. There was no way to know whether the principles of maneuvering in vacuum applied to this realm, but he couldn’t think of anything else to try. Adam quickly activated the drive. The cockpit was turning into a wonderland of movement and vibration, and even the screen Adam worked on was beginning to wobble. Only faint wisps of Chris remained, his eye sockets and mouth cavity stretching from floor to ceiling.

Data that Adam could still read on the monitor showed that the drive was straining to initiate a bubble. The Casimir compartment was having difficulty creating exotic matter, and the oscillation was running without effect.

“I’ll help. It’s what you want.” Chris said inside Adam’s head, crystal clear now.

A bubble of contracted space suddenly formed, and exotic matter finally started rolling into the Casimir cartouche.

Then everything went dark for Adam.