Chapter 3: Unanswered Questions
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
Eric rolled over, slowly stretching his arms over his head, keeping his eyes firmly shut. That was, without a doubt, the best sleep he’d had in ages. He knew it was time to get up. NASA was designed for and run by engineers, which meant they follow structure. He’d trained over the years to wake at the same time every day. He peeked through his lids reluctantly, opening his eyes wide a moment later. He was surprised to see the sun, not only up, but shining in his window. It was already late afternoon, and he never woke up later than seven in the morning. Glancing at his watch, he discovered he wasn’t wearing it. Sighing, he searched his bedside table, but didn’t find anything there. Sitting up, he studied his alarm clock, noticing it wasn’t moving. It’d stopped. That was the problem with the mechanical clocks he preferred. He appreciated the beauty of their intricate design, but if you forgot to wind them, they ceased functioning.
Growling, he scooted to the edge of the bed and threw his legs over the side. He was surprised to discover he was nude. He always wore pajamas. Even when summer was at its hottest, he at least used shorts. Nothing seemed right this morning. Something was off.
Stopping to consider what day it was and what he’d done last night, his eyes popped open. “God damn!” The memories of his last moments flooded back in a rush. He’d died trillions of miles from Earth, with no hope of rescue, ripped apart by some unknown interplanetary force. How did he end up back in his home, completely naked with nary a scratch or other evidence of what he’d experienced?
There was no way anyone rescued him. They had no backup Spatial Displacement Units. NASA researched his destination and decided there was little risk in a flight lasting only a few minutes in an empty segment of space. So how the hell did he end up here, and who put him to bed, undressing him and removing all his things?
Shaking his head, he stood and surveyed the room. There was no medical equipment, none of his possessions, nothing to show he’d been to the hospital or carted in. The fact his alarm clock was off showed no one spent enough time here to notice it wasn’t working.
He switched on the lamp and recoiled, holding his hand in front of his face. “What kind of bulb is this, and why would I pay money for something so obnoxious?” He peeked at it, but couldn’t stand the light, so he shut it off. It didn’t add much illumination as there was plenty of sunlight. He massaged his temple before lowering his hand, scratching his hand on the stubble on his chin. “That’s at least twelve hours of growth, which provides some idea of how long I’ve been here. If someone dropped me off, I’ve been on my own that long. Now I need to determine what day and time it is.”
Standing and spinning in a slow circle, he scratched his head. “This makes no sense.” Speaking to himself when vexed was a habit he developed in the Air Force. Pilots frequently spoke to themselves to resolve problems. “What the heck could bring me back here?” He sat again to consider his situation.
“I’m clearly missing something. If I was saved, which isn’t even conceivable, there would be someone or something here. At the very least, I’d be under observation so they could analyze how I was responding. The implication is I wasn’t rescued, which doesn’t make sense. How else would I end up here? There’s got to be some explanation, I just need to determine what it is.”
“Damn! I’ve got to call NASA. They’ll be wondering where I am.” As he considered that, his teeth began to chatter. The heat was still turned down. Whenever he traveled to Cape Canaveral he cranked the heater down to reduce expenses. His Wi-Fi and computer would be unplugged to prevent electric surges from frying the electronics. The TV and other electronics would also off to them from draining his wallet. He was a bit of a control freak about minor details.
Growling, he grabbed pants and a shirt and marched into the kitchen searching for caffeine. The polished wooden floors felt cold, and the ceramic tiles were even chillier. As he should have expected, the coffee maker was unplugged. He was more confused than ever. How had he arrived without someone taking the time to turn on the heat or changing anything? Wiping his finger along the counter, he discovered it coated in accumulated dust. Somehow he’d gotten into the house and into bed without anyone bothering to straighten up. The situation continued to get stranger.
Plugging the coffee pot back in, he searched for the grounds, forgetting he always froze the beans to keep them fresh when he left. Slapping his head, he glanced around for something to eat. He was starving, but remembered he rarely kept anything around which might spoil when he was away for long. It was a huge production preparing for the launch, and he was expected to head to Washington and New York City to promote NASA afterwards.
He’d tossed all the bread, fruits and vegetables, plus all the refrigerated products which might mold. That meant he was left with packaged meats, frozen foods and condiments. He normally hit the grocery store on the way back from the airport when he returned. He had random canned vegetables and beans, pasta and rice, but those weren’t exactly enticing combinations.
Sighing, he grabbed some frozen waffles, plugged in the toaster and depressing the plunger and headed for the bathroom. After relieving himself, he stepped to the washbasin to brush his teeth and examined himself in the mirror. As expected, he had a partial day’s beard, but didn’t bear any evidence of dirt, wear or having spent any extended time in bed. Deciding not to sweat about what he couldn’t answer, he brushed his teeth and washed his face. NASA’s Public Relations were ecstatic he was so dutiful about his teeth, since he had the brightest smile of anyone at NASA. It wouldn’t do having him representing the country on National TV with dull ivories. It also didn’t hurt with the ladies, who he shamelessly flirted with.
Returning to the kitchen, he took his lukewarm waffles, grabbed the cold syrup and a fork, sat down and dug in. Though he thought he was hungry, he had no idea just how much. He ate the entire box and was still famished. He found some old crackers in the cupboard, so he munched on them as he debated what to do.
“I need to call NASA, but without knowing what happened, I can’t explain what occurred. Hell, I might still be hallucinating! It’s amazingly detailed for a dream, but not as much as the ones I was having. I don’t even know what day it is, how much time has elapsed, or whether anyone knows about me. It’s possible someone stashed me here, but that seems unlikely.”
He glanced at the kitchen clock. It too was mechanical, an older German cuckoo whose weights were resting on the floor. The microwave wasn’t plugged in. Sighing in frustration, he decided to check the news.
Crossing the room, he knelt to plug the TV in. Handling the cord, he noted an odd sound within the wall. “Damn, likely some kind of termite. I’ll have to contact the exterminators... , once I locate my credit cards.” When he connected it, the buzzing in his head resumed. Turning it on, a jolt of pain flashed through his brain, leaving him reeling. Pulling back, he overcompensated and fell. The discomfort wasn’t overwhelming, but it surprised him. Still, it was uncomfortable enough he couldn’t remain where he was. Apparently he hadn’t escaped his trauma without injuries, after all. Standing, he found the further he got from the TV the better he felt. Taking refuge by the living room door, he started flipping through the channels, searching for a news program. Each time he changed the channel, another mild ache would flash through his temples making his jaw clench.
“ ... authorities are demanding an accounting from NASA, threatening a Congressional inquiry if they don’t get satisfactory answers.”
“Looks like I’m still in the news,” Eric reflected. “I’m glad I waited until I discovered what they’re saying about me before phoning NASA. They might not have a response now, but wait until I show up. They’ll all be royally pissed!”
The scene switched to NASA’s Press Secretary, Daniel Becket.
“We’re still determining what went wrong. Until we identify a specific cause, there’s no sense making any preliminary statements. We have a lot of data to parse through, though we don’t suspect anything happened on our end. We may not know until we can launch a follow-up probe.”
The camera returned to the reporter, who discussed how upset everyone was. It appeared that was the gist of the report. Eric still wasn’t sure how long it had been, but it was clear no one realized he was back. That changed things significantly. He couldn’t call the space agency and admit he was back without an explanation. It would take quite a bit to convince them what happened to him was real, even if he could explain it.
Holding his temple, he shut the television off. It was hard to think with the constant buzz in his head. As soon as the screen went black, his headache eased, but didn’t halt. He’d needed to have the TV examined. Apparently something happened and it was giving off some kind of radiation, which could be dangerous. He unplugged the set. An unstable component was a fire hazard. His pounding head abated, but he still heard scratching behind the wall and considered whether he might still be dreaming. Only everything was much too real, including his headache and the cold. He couldn’t remember experiencing dreams with physical sensations, but after the dreams he’d had, he couldn’t rule anything out.
Returning to his bedroom, he evaluated his situation as he finished dressing. A phone call wouldn’t work. He needed to talk to his bosses one-on-one for them to take him seriously. What’s more, if he called and informed them he was at his home, they’d undoubtedly panic and send a rescue team. That would alert the entire country he was still alive, which wasn’t a smart move. They had to calculate how to present this to the public, and an explanation to accomplish that. No, he’d need to travel on his own to Cape Canaveral. Only he had no money, credit cards or ID.
“I’ve got it,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I’ll call my sister, Leslie. She can loan me some cash so I can cover expenses and fly to Florida. I shouldn’t be recognized if I keep my face covered. I won’t need an ID because Frank knows me. I can think of some story to satisfy him. He’s a good friend so he won’t blab if I ask him to keep it quiet. Now all I need is to determine how to explain this to Leslie.”
“Well, putting it off won’t make it any easier!” He lifted his home phone and dialed—his cellphone, like his wallet, were still in Florida. It rang three times. He was about to hang up, assuming she was unavailable, when it was answered.
“Hallo?” a small voice asked.
“Becky, could I talk to your mother, please?” he asked. While he enjoyed spending time with his niece, he wanted to involve as few people as possible.
“Uncle Eric?” Becky Thomas asked in a hesitant voice. “Is that really you?”
“It is, but you can’t tell anyone about it y—”
“You’re alive?” she yelled, her voice raising a full octave. “Everyone’s talking about how you died. I cried all night. Mom had to—”
He was preparing to launch into some half-assed explanation when she was interrupted. There was a discussion in the background and he overheard his sister’s voice scolding her daughter about her decorum.
“But Uncle Eric’s alive!” Becky protested. There was no response for several moments before he heard a familiar voice.
“Eric?” Leslie asked, sounding as if she was speaking via Ouija board in a dark parlor late at night.
“Leslie, I can ex—”