Adrenaline pumped Jack up the tunnel. He passed Lila and then Bill who waddled along as fast as his chubby legs could carry him. Bill's glasses rested unsteadily on the tip of his nose.
Like a body on the edge of death, the rock around them trembled.
“I told you they should have left us some kind of shuttle!” screamed Bill, his face red and wet with sweat.
Jack didn't answer. What could he say to that?
“I sent...the SOS!” Lila yelled between gasps. “A ship...will be there.”
“Sixty seconds to implosion.” Again, the woman's monotone voice crackled from the speaker just ahead of Jack.
How could someone let the black hole breach containment! In a minute we'll all be dead. He gritted his teeth. He didn't want to die...He wouldn't die. For God's sake! It's a singularity...It's supposed to be a good thing! It powered Terraniger. Terraniger...Black Earth. They named this two-mile-in-diameter, man-made mine after Earth. It's heart was the black hole, quarantined and safely confined at the center of the planetoid. It pumped life into this gradually-expanding conglomeration of rock that was sucked up from the surrounding space. It took heat to the extremities. It voraciously consumed refuse. It provided an earth-equivalent gravity. Now, this giver of comfort had become a cancer, devouring the mass beneath them from the inside out. His legs pushed that much harder. How would they ever make it up the 3 levels to the landing pad. He reached the end of the first sixty yard ramp and turned up the second.
“Fifty seconds to implosion.”
Maybe Lila is right, and someone did hear the SOS.
A crumbling rumble knocked him to the metal mesh ramp. Dust and rock bubbled below the grating like water in a pot. When a scream pierced the planet's groaning, he looked back. The tremor had thrown a miner over the railing into the churning mass. The rocks worked on him like meat in a grinder. Lila was already on her feet. Jack felt the fear on her face. He shoved himself up and pulled on the railing in a headlong dash.
“Forty seconds to implosion.”
“Forty seconds...,” he panted under his breath, “we'll never make it!” A new burst of energy gushed into his body. Faster!...Faster! But his legs felt more like rubber than sinew and bone. With the work environment a mile above the black hole, the earth-equivalent gravity was usually a good thing. Now it just hindered his escape. Another scream as he turned up the last ramp. He kept his eyes focused ahead.
“Thirty seconds to implosion.”
Pulling with his arms and pushing with his legs, Jack hit the safety door. It gave way. The lights on the surface blinked unsteadily. The cold air slammed into him. Sufficient oxygen existed on the surface to support life, and enough warmth radiated from the mass to keep them from freezing. But the miners only came up here for access to arriving shuttles.
"There's no ship!" Lila screamed, her red hair flying in a chaotic mess.
“Twenty seconds to implosion.”
Jack glanced around. Their space suits hung from a wall. "Quick! Get on the suits!"
Through a tangle of arms and bodies, Jack reached for one. Another arm grabbed the same one. He pulled...saw red hair...grabbed another. He shoved one leg in and stumbled trying to slide the other in.
“Ten seconds to implosion.”
"There's a ship!" someone yelled.
Hope swelled in Jack's chest.
Not enough time!
Slid in one arm.
Adjusted the glove.
Slid in the second.
Sealed the front.
Helmet! Where's the helmet!
Fumbling with the helmet's seals, Jack's legs absorbed an ever increasing quivering. The ground moved. What had been as stable as the surface of the Earth now rolled on hidden waves. He wondered, would someone who died light years from Earth find the afterlife the same as someone who died at home? He glanced at Lila. With red hair hanging like a veil, she was on all fours on the deck, only one leg in her space suit, eyes wide and unblinking. Fissures in the concrete pad spread outward cracking like winter's ice on a lake. One fracture spread between her palms and between her knees. As the two halves moved independently, she looked at Jack a silent scream pasted on her face.
Bill stared up at the ship's slow approach, glasses hanging precariously to one ear. Another worker had his helmet on, but not his suit. Seventeen men and women cried, cursed, and prayed.
Jack stared. He always feared an unconscious death. Sure, he knew that when physical life ended, spiritual life continued. And he knew he was right with God. But he wanted to experience this with an attentive mind, awake and able. Everyone made this trip one time, and he didn't want to miss it.
A sudden desire for Molly burst into his chest. His wife never really liked him working way out here light years from earth. And their daughter Amelia, when he was home, she sat on his lap and snuggled up against his chest. Tears rolled down his cheek.
A violent spasm from the dying Terraniger threw him face first to the deck. Air rushed past his ears and was sucked from his nostrils and mouth. His eyes bulged. Falling... His skin expanded like a balloon being blown up to the breaking point. Falling...
Then everything stopped. No shaking...no crying...no yelling. He moved his fingers...toes...eyes. No deck below him...he floated...somewhere. He felt alive. Quick...the helmet!
“You don't need that.” Bill was beside him. Not standing, not lying, not sitting...he was just there with his glasses neatly on the bridge of his nose. All the artificial lights were gone and no sun shone in the immediate vicinity, yet Bill was clearly there.
Jack took a breath. His chest moved out...in. His mind told him there was not enough air pressure to support life. But here they were, all of them, existing where the planetoid had been. “Do you think we're dead?”
Lila looked around. “Don't see our bodies anywhere.”
“The ship's gone,” said another miner.
Jack looked up. Where it had been, only stars stood out bright and steady, their familiar twinkle gone.
The black hole! Jack looked left... They were just food to the singularity. Right...up...down...Where is it!
“Look!” Lila's voice carried that tone of amazement so familiar to a father, that sound of a child seeing something for the first time.
Looking over his shoulder, he followed Lila's gaze. The same sound caught in his throat. How did such a magnificent table get there! They all faced it. Ebony wood...black, but not as black as space...intricately carved...a brilliant white linen (How can anything be brilliant without light?).... Food? Where did it come from? “Do you smell the Turkey?” asked Jack.
“It's the peach pie,” said Bill.
Lila smelled spearmint.
Everyone smelled something different. But there should be no smell in a vacuum... Jack took a breath ...or air.
He blinked and rubbed his eyes. The vision remained.
One of the miners stuck his finger in a mixture that looked like rhubarb conserve. With his eyes closed, he sucked it off and sighed, “I remember this like it was yesterday.”
Others joined him, tasting, tentatively at first, then with more excitement.
Jack stayed back amidst floating pieces of space suits left by the crew. This just didn't make sense. Shaking his head, he grumbled to himself. He could either exist in the background wondering about what he saw, or he could participate with the others. That turkey smelled awful good. Finding himself at the table, he ripped off a leg. That was always his favorite part of the bird, though he didn't get it much anymore. Molly's parents usually celebrated holidays with them and they both liked legs. He took a bite. This was just like mother used to make.
He wasn't hungry, but he ate...as much as he wanted.
Lila's palms rested on the table across from him. She stared at a crème brûlée with a fragrant sprig of spearmint on top. Using a fork, she lifted the spearmint, rearranged it, then did it again.
“What are you thinking of?” he asked.
She looked up with puzzled wrinkles across her forehead. “I've eaten five pieces already; this is my sixth. And I'm not even full.” She shaved off one corner with her fork, placed it on her tongue, and sensuously moved it about her mouth. “And every bite still replays that same memory...the same emotions.”
Jack smiled. “And what memories.”
“My first date with a guy I...ah, really liked.” She blushed. “So, what part of this is yours?”
“Well, I suppose it's the turkey. I seem to be the only one eating from it.”
“And what are you thinking about?”
How could he explain a flood of thoughts all jumbled up together? “I remember thanksgivings as a child, ones with just Molly and me, and ones as a family...all rolled up in each bite.”
“Have you tried anything else?”
“Well...no.” The desire to taste another dish never really crossed his mind.
“I wonder why not?”
Jack did too. But even considering the question, he felt no need to experiment. He nibbled at the second leg and thought of his father and the first Thanksgiving he could remember.
“Ah-hem!” In his hand, Bill balanced a piece of peach pie topped with whipped cream. “Have you wondered where the black hole went to?”
Shaking his head, Jack stared at Bill wondering what was different about him.
“Me neither. But don't you think we ought to? We were only a mile from it. There's no way we should still be here.”
His glasses. That's it. He's not wearing his glasses!
“Maybe we aren't,” said Lila. “Maybe we're dying. You know...like having our lives pass before our eyes.”
They both laughed. As they turned back to the table, Bill bit off the tip of the pie, and Lila took a bite of crème brûlée, touching it off with a spearmint leaf.
Now why did they have to go and ask those questions? Jack scratched his head with the leg. The food didn't leave any grime on the hands or fingers...or anywhere else.
Locked in the guts of a man-made rock in space for two months at a time, you got to know the miners you worked with. Jack felt pretty certain not everyone here would be in heaven with a perfect God. Maybe you're wrong about God. This little voice inside turned his stomach.
An assurance welled up and fought back. No. If I were dead I wouldn't still be here. Jesus has cleared my way to heaven.
But you're so far from Earth. Maybe God deals differently with people who die light years from home.
Now that was an uncomfortable thought. No! 'All things came into being through Him and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.' A relationship with God is the same here as anywhere. Lila's wrong! We're neither dead nor dying. But where's the black hole? Well, at one mile away, something less than the size of a fingertip wouldn't be very visible. And it's a black hole for God's sake! But Bill's right. It should have pulled us in; we weren't revolving about it like some space ship.
Still...maybe they had managed to enter an orbit. If so, the closer they got to the singularity, the faster they would travel, that is, if they weren't just sucked into it. Within a fraction of an inch of the black hole, they would be orbiting at the speed of light...which is impossible. But, then, face the facts! they would be mush at that point.
Jack peered into the blackness.
“What are you looking for?” Lila floated next to him with another dish of crème brûlée.
“Not sure. Some sign of the black hole, I suppose.”
Lila looked into the spangled darkness below them. “What would a black hole look like out here?”
Jack shrugged. “Black?”
Lila giggled, licked at a fork full of the dessert, hugged herself and spun in a circle. “Did you see that?” She pointed behind Jack.
There! A star shifted position. That had to be the lensing effect of the black hole. Everywhere else, the stars showed no change. Moving his eyes in a circular pattern around that spot where the star had shifted, he looked for any other abnormalities. He chuckled to himself, more out of tension than a funny thought. Normality had suddenly been redefined.
“Come on.” Lila turned back to the table. “You're missing all...this!” The word slid off her tongue in a most suggestive way.
There! Another shift....and another. So far, all followed the same vector. He looked further out along the path established by the other shifts. His breath caught in his throat. As the focus of his vision moved, the lensing effect followed. Every star on that exact path shifted position with the movement of his eyes.
He nibbled another bit of meat off one of the tendons and absently chewed. The amazement of standing in the doorway to his grandmother's kitchen as she prepared the Thanksgiving dinner flooded his mind and mixed with the wonder of this new revelation. The urge to return to the table pushed other thoughts away. What a feast!
No! He forced his gaze back to the vector of the singularity and followed it up a good forty five degrees above the table and then down below him and back to where he had started—the path of the black hole—really, the effect of an orbit around the hole. Their speed was uncertain but had to be close to the speed of light. So anywhere he looked along the path, the footprint of its presence was there. At any point in time it was everywhere on that vector, at least from their perspective.
They slowly turned to him, eyes glazed over, faces glowing with a soft satisfaction.
“We're in the black hole's accretion disk, orbiting it.” Jack pointed in an arch toward the circle of lensing shifts.
They followed his arm, staring into the darkness. Bill shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts. “I see it. What does it mean?”
Bill should know that. This...whatever it is...has captured their minds. “It means the black hole is still out there and we're being pulled into it. Somehow, we've got to find a way out or we'll die.”
His friend moved his head in an arch following the path. “No one really knows what happens when we cross the event horizon.”
“Some say we can jump into another dimension,” said Lila.
“...or time stops,” said Bill.
Jack had heard all these theoretical conjectures. But, now his life was in the balance. “Listen. The event horizon is a definite boundary in space. All the parts of your body will not cross it at the same time. This is a small singularity. What do you think will happen when it starts nibbling at your fingers, but your toes aren't at the event horizon yet? It's going to rip you apart. We're going to die unless we find some way out of this mess.”
“We should already be dead.” Lila's speech was slow and slurred.
“But we're not!” Jack shook her. “Let's deal with that.”
“I don't know.” Bill pointed to his eyes. No glasses adorned his face. “You'll notice all our physical problems are gone.” Looking over his shoulder at the table, he continued, “If there is a heaven, it seems to me it would be like this.”
“You can't live forever eating your way to paradise. Look at them!” Jack pointed to the rest of the crew. “When you're at the table you're as dumb as they are. We all are. We've GOT to find a way out of this!”
A thought crossed his mind. He moved to the left. The lensing path moved to the right. He moved right and the path moved left. He pulled his friends along with him. “Look at the parallax. We're close. Maybe ten yards from the singularity.” Get them to think for themselves. “What can we do to escape it?”
Wrinkles formed on Lila's forehead.
Bill scratched his chin. “There are cases of stars being whipped out of the center of galaxies at tremendous speeds. The theory is that instead of being sucked in, they were pulled close to the black hole and then flung outward escaping it.”
“Just like the early space program used the major planets to whip probes further outward at greater speed,” added Lila.
Bill quickly continued. “We would need to get out of the accretion disk to avoid debris.”
“And then find a way to slow our speed enough to cause us to descend to the singularity in a parabolic orbit,” said Lila, more alert now.
“And then just hope we aren't pulled directly into the hole,” grumbled Bill.
“Even a little hope is better than blindly following a self-deluded path to oblivion.” Jack turned and yelled toward the rest of the crew. “We're dead if we stay here. We've got to go.”
None indicated they had even heard.
Lila grabbed and pulled one miner...and then another, but was unsuccessful.
“Let's go Lila,” yelled Jack. “It's too late for them.”
Lila appeared next to Bill and Jack. “We can't just leave them here.”
A pang of guilt shadowed his mind. “They're seeing brain candy. This...whatever it is...numbs our senses to the REAL world. Remember what you felt like.”
“Yeah...” Bill's voice was almost a sigh. He took a long look toward his friends still at the table.
“Well, how are we going to move out.” She placed puffy palms on her spacesuit-covered waist.
“We can hold each other while one of us shoots air from his...or her...” Bill looked a Lila. “...air tank.”
“I say we let Jack do it,” said Lila. “This is his idea.”
They both turned toward him. If he used his air, that would put him in jeopardy should this little venture not work. But someone had to make the move. He nodded.
“Wait!” Bill grabbed his arm. “What if there's no one there to rescue us.”
He thought only a second. “We'll activate our distress beacons.”
“I...don't know...” Said Bill slowly.
“You two can quit discussing it. We're already moving!”
Jack glanced back toward the table. The dinner was decidedly further away and shrinking by the second.
Bill fidgeted with his gloves. “I'm not sure this IS the REAL world. Maybe this black hole opened our minds to the true character of the universe, and our old memories are the dream.”
“Come on, Bill.” Lila reached out to him. “Let's do this together.”
“The further we move away, the worse I feel. I don't like this.”
“Your body is a tool,” argued Jack, “a vessel, to be used by your spirit. Will you use it or will it use you?”
“What makes you think we have a spirit? Maybe this body is all there is to life.”
Lila answered immediately. “That wasn't the physical world we know. Didn't you feel the joy...the contentment.” She paused, looking into the distance. “And how did we get from one place to another. When I wanted to be at the table, I was there. When I wanted to talk with Jack, I was there. We moved like in a dream.”
Her voice raised electric goosebumps in Jack. He hadn't noticed that.
“I mean,” she continued, “when the waves washed over me, I was carried to paradise.”
“What waves?” Bill stared at her. “I didn't see any water. But, then, my eyes were focused on my kite.”
What are they talking about! “Lila, you were eating crème brûlée. And, Bill, you were eating peach pie.”
“No I wasn't, they said together.”
The scene they had left was blurred in the distance, whether by the debris of Terraniger around the hole or by the singularity itself wasn't clear. Bill stared back. “You sat on the grassy knoll next to me talking about your family. And Lila lay in spearmint sprigs with the most dreamy look on her face, staring up at the whipped cream clouds.”
“We were all playing in a sea of water.” Lila sounded close to tears.
“I'm going back!” Bill wrinkled his nose trying unsuccessfully to straighten his glasses. He slowed.
“No!” Yelled Jack. But Bill already was beyond his reach. He watched his friend recede.
Lila floated beside Jack. “You see what you want to see,” she said softly, “and hear what you want to hear.”
Philosophical promulgations was not what Jack wanted. His friend had returned to sure death. “We came from the same place,” he said. “How could we have been living different realities?
“Maybe it's an intersection of dimensions,” Lila's voice carried this sound of amazement, like when they first saw the table.
“That's just science fiction,” he said. “There's no evidence that other dimensions exist. Nice thought though.”
“Maybe we were each dreaming...you know, sharing our dreams.”
“That's about as weird as blended dimensions. We've got to analyze what we see around us. Weigh it against our past.”
Lila's head nodded thoughtfully inside her helmet. “Hmmm. What we've thought is what we've seen...and done. Maybe this singularity doesn't just suck in mass...” Her voice trailed off, speaking more to herself than him. “It's captured our minds. It's a dimensional gateway for our thoughts.”
Jack studied her. She looked serious.
“Come on, Lila! Be logical!”
She wasn't listening. “There's someplace else I want to be...and someone else I want to be with.” She closed her eyes...scrunched up her face...
And Jack floated alone in space.