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.