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 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.