2) Otherworldly Catastrophes
The transition, while transparent to Eric Morgan, left him dazed. Before he was even aware he’d successfully jumped trillions of miles, the ship’s alarms blared, alerting him that something was wrong.
Scrambling, he checked the various displays. Despite being largely automated, the capsule was arrayed with a variety of sensors to record this region to correlate where he’d ended up with their observations of the nearby galaxies. He scanned down a list of problems with the craft: “Structural Integrity Compromised”, “Unexpected Forces Affecting Craft Performance”, “Unable to Stabilize”. As he wrestled with what was happening, he was blinded as the interior was bathed in brilliant lights from outside.
If he wasn’t distracted by the alarms—necessitating immediate action—he’d have remembered to close his eyes to avoid this problem. As he groped for the display he couldn’t see, squeezing his eyes closed too late to do any good, he recalled what happened. In order to record the success of the trip, the ship was equipped with a massive array of lights to shine in a direct beam for home. The idea was, after he returned, the Earth would receive visual confirmation in another ten years when the signal, a series of high-energy lasers, reached Earth. It was designed to reinforce for everyone how phenomenal the distances were.
The majority of his ship was dedicated to the massive beacon and the batteries to operate it. There wasn’t much need for life support, since he was only expected to be gone a matter of minutes, but generating enough illumination to be visible ten light years out required a tremendous power outlay. Most of his remaining time here was waiting for the systems to regenerate the energy needed to return.
The lights which blinded him clicked off, though his vision was slower to recover. Meanwhile, the clarion calls of multiple alarms continued. Eric was desperate to discover what was wrong. From what he’d read, there was a systematic failure and he was understandably anxious about taking corrective action before something terrible occurred. However, the ship wasn’t constructed to facilitate repairs, only with getting him there and back for an extremely short period. Glancing at his oversized gloves, there wasn’t much he could do even if he had tools.
They’d assured him it would be a safe journey. While teleportation was a risky venture, since two physical objects can’t occupy the same space, NASA patiently informed him about the multiple test drones they’d sent. Each separated by millions of miles and taking images of the region, so they felt secure the area was free of obstructions. Clearly they were wrong. Deadly wrong!
Cursing, he opened his eyes to almost complete darkness, his pupils not yet constricted. The dimly lit interior was obscured by floating dots obscuring his limited vision. Like most electronic devices, there was a switch to make the display read its output audibly, designed so he could get updates while doing other things. However, he couldn’t see enough to find the damn thing.
The ship lurched, jarring him. He squinted, trying to force his eyes to adjust—which they did—just not fast enough to do much good.
Another terrible groan echoed as the entire craft shuddered, and he felt himself stretched backwards. Not yanked or pulled, but elongated, as if space itself was stretching in some weird relativity demonstration. He remained firmly strapped into his seat, but the monitor was now farther away than it had been. When he reached out for it, his limbs seemed to be more distant than they were moments before.
Eric had no idea what was occurring. No one ever warned him of this, since it had never been encountered before. He wondered what unknown hell he’d been thrown into. There was some unforeseen phenomenon here which was not only ripping his ship apart, but affecting the physics which maintained the vessel’s molecular structure.
The capsule’s whine increased in pitch and he heard a couple loud pops, announcing the outer seals bursting. He realized the craft’s limited oxygen content would be sucked from the ship. He reached up to turn on his suit’s oxygen, but his elongated body wouldn’t respond. His arm took an extremely long time to move, appearing to be moving great distances. His vision cleared, but the display was too far away to read. His arms were moving as quickly as humanly possible, so he pitched forward to bring the suit’s controls to his gloves.
A high pitched whistle announced the evacuation of the ship’s oxygen, and everything not tied down began to fly across the ship, only to bounce back when they struck the craft’s walls. His hand was about half way to his helmet’s controls, so he took a deep breath of the remaining ship’s oxygen.
He understood it was a futile action. The capsule wasn’t designed for a lengthy deployment and hadn’t been equipped with a mechanism to exit the ship. Whatever air was available in his suit wouldn’t mean much. What’s twenty minutes of oxygen when you’re trillions of miles from the nearest rescue? They wouldn’t even realize he was in trouble until he’d been dead and adrift in space. Still, he soldiered on because, frankly, there wasn’t any other option. When your life is on the line and you’re staring death in the face, you don’t quibble over how many moments you may have left. You grab any last second you can and hope it’ll be enough.
His clumsy fingers found the control, twisting the release and he heard the whisper of air pumping inside his suit.
Glancing up, the display he’d been so concerned with seemed incredibly distant. So far away, he could barely make out the dim glow of its screen. A random nut smashed into the corner of the screen, shattering the upper left corner, but it wouldn’t make much difference now. Another groan, followed by a large crack and the screen went blank as the capsule’s power cables snapped. So much for returning to safety!
The shriek of grinding metal pierced his ears, as he was further stretched towards some unseen point. His vision began to dim. He couldn’t tell if it was from the strain, or if he was witnessing actual events. It appeared the entire ship was losing its molecular stability, and the physical structures around him dissolved before his eyes.
Realizing there was no way to save his life, and no way to try, even if he understood what was happening, he thought of everything he’d left behind. With no immediate family, partially why he’d been selected for this mission, he hoped there was someone who’d care what happened to him. He wished he could see his wife—ex-wife, he reminded himself—or his sister and niece, but realized there was no hope of that. He was trillions of miles away, and it would take ten full years for the faint glow of his arrival to appear. Without sending another probe, they wouldn’t even know whether he was here or somewhere billions of miles further out in space. Even if they could identify what happened, they’d have no way to understand what occurred.
Closing his eyes and sighing, he surrendered himself to the universe, allowing it to do what it wanted. He hoped his demise would be swift. Surprisingly, being stretched across space, watching his molecular bonds dissolve, was oddly painless. A loud crack alerted him the capsule was ripped apart and the vast expanse of space opened up before him, but the insistent wail of the ship’s alarms were long forgotten. He lived the most spectacular death ever witnessed by man.
The pain he’d avoided sprung upon him with a vengeance. His entire body convulsed, as if being ripped apart an atom at a time, each cell howling in protest. He assumed whatever was pulling him asunder delayed the nervous system’s response. He thought he’d screamed, but even in the tight confines of his helmet, he couldn’t hear a thing, and he blacked out from the agony.
Only … he didn’t lose consciousness, only the awareness of his body and what was transpiring around him. His mind seemed clear, as if freed from the constraints of his mortal body. But instead of analyzing what was occurring, his thoughts drifted away, still alert but largely unfocused, probably a sign of the shock his brain experienced.
The destruction of his craft and his imminent death no longer seemed to matter. All he was aware of was his imagination, and he could clearly visualize the memories of his life. He saw a perfect image of him as a baby, and the memory triggered others. He could not only see, but feel sense and taste his mother’s breast before his suckling mouth. She vanished even as he clutched at her, never once questioning what was transpiring.
His mind leapt from one image to another, showing his parents standing over his crib, scanning the rooms he’d been raised in, his explorations of the expansive floor from only inches away. He crawled swiftly from room to room, but his visions didn’t wait for him to catch up. Jumping ahead, he saw his siblings, first the older one who’d died years ago in an unfortunate highway accident, and his younger sister who was born only a couple years after him. Only now, she was crawling towards him herself, grasping for him as if afraid she’d never reach him. The sentiments he felt at the time swept over him. He felt love for her, his protectiveness and jealousies, as well as her desire to be by his side.
Eric began to realize something was seriously wrong. The fact he felt her joy struck him as a violation. It wasn’t possible, even if he could explain the visions, but it was enough to snap him out of his passive response. But the dreams continued. He became his parents doting on him, his brother and sister. He saw himself playing with both, and felt a deep remorse he hadn’t realized how short a time he and Franklin had together before he’d be yanked out of his life.
He saw childhood pals, people he couldn’t have remembered yesterday but now standing before him in larger than life clarity so intense he saw each individual pore. His dream moved about as friends and family swept in and out of the house. Yet, as the waves of emotions at seeing these long forgotten souls rolled over him, his mind resisted. No longer complacently accepting what happened, it searched for the truth behind them. His logical brain began applying itself to these flashbacks. What were these visions? They seemed to be of his life, but the detail and vitality weren’t his. They weren’t his memories, because he’d never seen anything this clear, and had forgotten them many decades ago, even if he had. So where did these recollections originate, if not from him?
As he questioned the reality of these apparitions, Eric remembered what he’d just experienced. He recalled being sucked out of his ship, his body being ripped asunder even as it dissolved in a fading haze. Unable to stand these meaningless dreams which had no bearing on what was occurring, he stood in protest. In this latest dreamscape, he was around twelve and his buddies and he were playing in his bedroom. Ignored everyone, he walked to the door, looking out into the hall. His friends never ceased their activity, not curious what he was doing. The hallway stretching before him was as unrealistically detailed as the other illusions. He observed every mote of dust, every spider web in the corner, even scratch and crayon marks on the walls.
Realizing this made no sense and was somehow being projected onto his mind from elsewhere, he strode down the hallway. He descended the stairs, ignoring his sister and brother in their rooms, never even glancing at him. Reaching the front door, he grasped it, braced himself as if expecting a rush of cold air, and thrust it open, searching for an explanation.
What greeted him, however, was much more unreal than the overly realistic memories. As the door swung free, it revealed the endless expanse of open space in a clarity he’d never witnessed. The house he’d been in, his childhood home, vanished. All around him stretched the vastness of the universe. He could see individual stars, colossal sweeping galaxies, and far distant supernovas which shone brighter than the Earth’s moon. Realizing something still wasn’t right, he clutched his head, wondering what helmet he wore which afforded him such unlimited clarity of vision.
His hands touched his head and it felt … odd. As if his fingers slipped through his skin. Twisting in space, he glanced at them and saw he wore no suit of any kind, nothing to protect him from the ravages of the airless void: the absolute cold, the lack of oxygen and the constant bath of ever-present radiation. He felt nothing but the universe enveloping him, stretching out before him like a long-lost friend.
But, strangest of all were his hands, held in front of his disbelieving eyes. They were translucent and glowed with an unearthly light; as if only a vague display of what his appendages might look like if he still possessed them. They glittered, like a hig-tech Christmas tree. It was then he realized he heard what sounded like a mighty chorus humming in the background, even though sound waves couldn’t exist in the vacuum of space. Instead, it was like he heard the songs of the cosmos, detailing everything we could never hope to comprehend.
It was then that he lost it. He remembered screaming, but no voice rang out. The noise didn’t echo in his own head, there was no sound at all. His mind rejected everything and began to unravel. He again had no clue what was occurring, but wasn’t about to put up with these fake images anymore. He wanted the truth, no matter how painful.
That was his last thought. Afterwards, nothing remained but darkness, and he slept in the infinite silence of an eternal peace.