Chapter 5: Internal Investigation
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
Robert Givens, the project manager of NASA’s ISSDD program, stared at Eric across the metal table, slowly tapping his fingers. “So, Morgan, I’m interested in hearing how you came to be here?”
Stanley Wright, the director of Cape Canaveral operations leaned forward with a cold glare. “I’m interested in how he slipped out of the capsule, and where he’s been for the last day. Son, you’ve embarrassed all of NASA. Thanks to you, we stand to lose all our funding. What were you thinking?”
Givens was an older man, with wavy gray hair and a white mustache. His face was wrinkled, showing he’d lived a long, hard life before settling into his current position. Director Wright was just as old, but his hair was still mostly dark aside from his temples and salt-and-pepper mustache. He wore wire-rim glasses, a holdover from his days as a Navy pilot, and possessed a healthy set of jowls. They both came up through the ranks.
Eric leaned back, waving his arm to indicate the large mirror facing them. “Frankly, I’d be more inclined to respond if I wasn’t being interrogated behind a one-way mirror, in a room little more than a cell, with my every word being recorded.” He stopped and held his forehead, closing his eyes. “This is hardly a setting for a straightforward, honest discussion. As it is, I feel I need to call my lawyer and plead the fifth.”
“Is there a reason you refuse to answer?” Stanley asked, arching his brow.
“Sir, Eric has a point. We’re trying to establish the facts.” Robert turned back to the subject of their ire. “But you need to realize, everyone will analyze how we handle this. The first thing they’ll ask is what was said. We have to record this to circumvent claims that we colluded to defraud the public.”
“Fraud? Are you serious? Robert, you know I played no part in designing that capsule. How could I slip out, unnoticed, and escape a building full of employees while my every move was recorded? I don’t know what happened. We need to analyze the situation to determine what did. Treating me like a criminal won’t answer your questions.”
“We’ve already initiated a thorough investigation to discover how you arranged this,” Stanley assured him. “We’ll establish what you did, but for now, we need to understand what you hoped to accomplish.”
Eric spread his arms, staring at the heavens hidden behind several floors of offices. “All right, if that’s the case, how did I disappear, taking the craft with me, travel light years, and return without anyone knowing? As I said, I had no control over the design of the capsule. I couldn’t reprogram it to break the laws of physics by landing in a secret garage. Even if I did, why would I come here to help figure out how I did it?”
“You might not have accomplished it on your own, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t guilty,” Stanley countered.
Robert sighed, leaning back. “Please, Director, let’s not begin by throwing around unsubstantiated accusations. Eric is right. We need to focus on what happened and work out how to respond. Can you explain exactly what occurred?”
Eric groaned, massaging his temples. “I don’t know. Something went horribly wrong. The initial leap went perfectly, but when I arrived, something I’ve never witnessed ensued. The space around me began to expand, stretching everything out. The ship broke apart, but I didn’t experience any pain. As weird as it sounds, everything in the capsule faded away. I’m guessing the spacing between each atom expanded until everything lost its molecular stability.”
“That’s the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard,” Stanley hissed. “You expect us, experts working with the latest revelations in physics, to believe this nonsense?”
“I’m simply ... telling you ... what happened.” He enunciated each word, grasping his forehead, wincing with every syllable.
“Let’s wait a minute before fighting amongst ourselves.” Robert leaned forward, laying his hands on the table. “How about if we deal with specifics? If you were pulled apart ten light years from here, how did you return with no capsule?”
Eric’s forehead furrowed as he clenched his fists, channeling his energy. “I ... don’t ... know. I felt myself being stretched. I saw everything drawing away and the vessel started to dissolve, then I lost consciousness. The next thing I know, I woke up in my bed at home.”
“Oh, isn’t that convenient!” Stanley said with a sneer. “Not only do you prove decades of research unnecessary by accomplishing the same thing on your own, you do it in your sleep.”
“I’ll admit; I find it hard to swallow, too.”
Eric opened his fists, color returning to his flesh, red lines marking where the skin folded. He leaned forward on his elbows, spreading his hands, though his brow remained furrowed. “I assumed you’d have trouble accepting it. I did too. As I’m gone...” He halted, resting his head in his palm for a few moments before continuing. “Since I’m away from home so often, my house is equipped with a security system. If you call the company, you’ll determine it was never deactivated until this morning. I turned it off to leave the house at 9:43.”
“It’s easy enough to shut a monitoring system off,” Stanley said.
“Check the record. I ... wait.” He leaned back, titling his head up and covering his eyes, breathing out. “I can’t continue. My head is about to split apart. These lights are killing me, and this damn microphone is squawking like it’s a friggin’ chimpanzee orchestra. Can we use a cellphone to record the conversation instead of this ancient relict?”
The two men studied him as he buried his head in his hands and massaged his skull. They glanced at each other, before turning to Eric again.
“It hasn’t made a sound the entire time we’ve been sitting here,” Robert said.
“And why the hell would a flickering light bug you?” Wright demanded. “It’s barely working. It’s about shot, so it can’t be the brightness.”
Eric spoke without glancing up, pushing his seat back to distance himself from the offending devices. The screech of his moving chair didn’t bother him. “No, but it’s an old florescent light and uses more electricity than the more modern, efficient ones.”
“Wait, you’re telling me you can detect the strength of electrical fields by feel?”
“He’s not suggesting—”
“I don’t know what’s causing it, but ever since I woke up, electric appliances trigger agonizing pain. I can’t stand to be near them. If you can’t turn the microphone off, at least move it farther away!”
Robert glanced at it and around the room before returning his attention to Eric. “It’s an old device and the acoustics in here are terrible. If we shift it back, it’s won’t capture our conversation.”
“It hurts because of its age. The lights aggravate me because they’re flickering. In addition to the pain, it’s inconsistent, so I can’t adjust to it. The newer bulbs hurt less. The microphone has a bad connection, there’s a spark inside causing the electricity to halt and surge. That’s what’s making the noise. Just get another damn mic and turn the light off and I might be able to continue.”
Stanley stood, turned, raising his fists before he faced Eric and sighed. “Electricity hurts, but you flew all the way here with no problems? You drove here from the airport and phoned Robert to pick you up? How the hell do you accomplish all that if you can’t stand electric currents?”
“I turn off most of my electronics when I leave. I only used them for a short time. When I flew here, I turned everything off except when absolutely needed. Mechanical operations don’t bother me. I don’t have my phone. I left my cellphone behind and borrowed a stationary phone long enough to make the call.”
“I’ll admit,” Robert said, “when we picked him up, I discovered him hiding in the far corner of the restroom with the lights turned off.”
“Big surprise, he plans his lies in advance.”
Eric glanced up, squinting and only opening one eye, waving at the table. “Unplug the microphone and study it. If you take it apart, I guarantee you’ll discover loose wires.”
“Yeah, and we’re supposed to take your word for it?”
“Hell no!” he snapped. “You need to examine it to prove me wrong. That’s the damn scientific method. Have you been administrators so long you’ve forgotten what we do? If you don’t uncover a sloppy connection, you can turn it back on and shove it in my face.”
Stanley looked at his partner, who responded.
“He’s got a point, Stanley.”
“We’re supposed to ascertain what he did with millions of dollars of valuable research equipment, and you want to screw around with a twenty dollar microphone?”
Robert shrugged. “It was only that much because of its age. Chances are, it’s decades old. I say let’s check it. So far, nothing presented explains anything. If he’s onto something, we may have some clue as to what happened.”
“Yeah, f•©k you too!” Director Wright shouted. “Waste our time if you insist, but once we’re done, I’m through with these cheap excuses. You’re going to answer our questions honestly.”
“Sure, just unplug the friggin’ thing,” Eric said, vaguely waving at the desk, still cradling his head. “In the meantime, if you give me a pad and pencil, I’ll write down all the messages the ISSDD capsule reported. It may identify something, but it only reported that everything was failing.”
Stanley glanced at each of them, not sure how to continue. “Do you need a screwdriver?”
“Nah, I’m an engineer at heart.” Robert, the head of a multimillion dollar government program unplugged the older model microphone and laid it on the table. He pulled out his multifunction pocket knife and unfolded the screwdriver attachment. “Sorry, Eric. I need the crummy light to see what I’m doing.”
“If you move by the door, the lighting’s better,” he suggested. He stood and sat on the floor in the corner of the room, still holding his head.
Glancing up, Robert noticed he was correct. The overhead light was past its prime. Carrying the microphone, he dragged his chair over by the door, turned the light off and sat, examining it again.
“This is no way to conduct an investigation,” Stanley muttered to no one in particular. As Robert continued playing with his device, he turned to Eric.
“How’s the headache?”
“Better. Turning those two devices off makes a significant difference. As soon as Robert’s finished, I can supply more reasoned responses.”
“Yeah, that’s just what we need, better-researched lies.”
“That’s a little uncalled for, don’t you think?” Robert asked as he pulled apart the microphone’s case. “If nothing else, get him some paper to write out a statement. We need details, not accusations.” Opening the casing, he squinted to see in the dim light. “Hell, he’s right. There’s a short in the wiring. The wires are kinked and frayed. Chances are we couldn’t use the recording if he didn’t call our attention to it.”
Stanley, ripping several pages from his notebook and laying them on the table, scowled. “He got lucky.”
Robert glanced up, dumping the defective microphone on the desk. “You don’t believe that, do you? Come on, an old-time engineer like you, choosing to accept an unlikely coincidence rather than considering that we’re searching for answers in the wrong place. Apply Occam’s Razor to the problem. Is guessing about an invisible short more or less likely than that we’re dealing with something completely unknown?”
Eric stood and returned to the table, sitting down to write. “Can we continue? If you must, get a newer, more reliable microphone, though I’d prefer keeping the door open and the lights off.”
Stanley mumbled something neither man understood. He studied Eric as he sat; staring at him as a young boy examines a small insect as he carefully pulls the wings off.
“Now where were we?” Robert asked. “I must say, you still appear a little piqued.”
“Your choice,” Eric said. “My head still aches, but it’s manageable. Now, my biggest issue is claustrophobia. However, I can manage. We can either discuss where I was last night, where I woke up this morning, or what happened last night.”
Stanley and Robert glanced at each other, neither as sure of themselves as they’d been.
“How about if we start with what occurred last night, and continue with what followed.” Stanley lifted a spare pen, preparing to take copious notes.
“Okay, essentially, you still maintain you don’t understand what happened, how you got back, or even why the lights hurt your eyes.” When Eric shrugged, Director Stanley Wright threw his hands in the air. “Why am I cursed to always work with engineers?” he pleaded to the gods.
“No, I ran into some new phenomena which represents some aspect of relativity we don’t comprehend yet.”
“Yeah, your ‘stretching matter until it disappears’ theory,” Stanley said, rolling his eyes. “For an engineer, I’d expect you to come up with a more realistic science-fiction concept.”
Robert frowned, clasping his hands. “You have to admit, it’s pretty weak.”
“Look, you picked the location because that segment of space was empty. Did you stop to consider why? Maybe it’s because there’s something there which destroys matter?”
“And automatically transports it back to Earth, tucks it into bed, and unplugs all their electronics?”
“I unplug my own equipment, thank you very much,” Eric replied.
“As for your idea of some unknown physical property, it’s entirely possible you were suffering from shock and hallucinating.” Stanley stared at the younger man, challenging him to propose a more satisfying alternative.
Tiring of this cat and mouse game, Robert stuck up for his star employee. “Stanley, no matter how you argue it, somehow he got home again. You can’t explain away that little detail. His little parlor tricks might not amount to much, but they point to something else at play here.”
The director frowned, not any happier. “So aside from ‘friendly space aliens’—which you saw no sign of and who left no calling card—you’ve got nothing.”
Robert spread his hands. “You have to admit, this is hard to sell to Congress.
“Congress?” Eric asked.
“Yeah, the NASA Authorization Committee,” Stanley snarled. “We report to them and they pay us our salaries. You remember them, don’t you? They’ll want an accounting. In case you were out of town and hadn’t heard, they’re already convening a full Congressional Investigation. The voices demanding one will only grow louder with your reappearance.”
“I hadn’t,” Eric admitted.
“We figured that much. You can bet your bottom dollar the world will be watching. It’ll be televised, and even our biggest supporters—of which there aren’t many to begin with—will be after our blood. So what do you suggest we tell them?”
Eric held his hands up in a sign of helplessness, countered by his grin. “How about we tell them the truth? That we ran across something new and are dealing with an unknown phenomenon which might lead to a phenomenal breakthrough in our understanding of the universe? If they press, we pull out the God card. We suggest a power larger than ourselves figured I was in the wrong place and sent me back home to play in my own sandbox.”
“Yeah, I can see that going over big,” Stanley growled.
“At least consider it,” Robert suggested. “We’ve got nothing better. They’ll want some kind of explanation, and it plays to our biggest strengths. Those who want to witness scientific advances have the enticement of a huge discovery. Those who oppose us will have the evidence they need that we don’t have all the answers.”
Eric smiled a crooked smile, appealing to their darker sides. “Even those who contend the world was created five thousand years ago will jump at the chance to visit God in his own backyard. Even if they rake us over the coals for not knowing what we jumped into, they’ll be interested enough to send us back to discover what we’re dealing with.”
“He’s got you there. No matter how they react, they can hardly cut off our funding now. They can investigate Eric all they want, but they’ll want to know how he accomplished it and whether what he’s suggesting is true or not. Either way, the only way we’ll know is if we return.”
“Possibly, but they’ll never approve another manned mission,” Stanley groused, not entirely convinced.
“Unless someone convinces them he saw something significant there.”
“I still contend you were hallucinating due to a lack of oxygen.”
“Maybe, but there’s a part I was afraid to admit. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. When I blacked out, I experienced a series of dreams. Only they weren’t normal imaginings. They were ‘hyper-real’, more real than reality. It’s like you woke from a black and white world from the fifties to discover a color high-definition world outside. I witnessed details of my past I have no memory of, but it was larger than life. I saw minutiae I couldn’t if I was there now. I not only saw and heard it; I felt the damn air moving across my skin.”
“That supports my hallucination theory,” Stanley said, raising his brow.
“Tell me, when you dream, what do you dream about? Does it involve the moment you were born? Do you imagine witnessing things your eyes are incapable of observing?”
“What are you suggesting?” Robert demanded, anticipating where he was going.
Eric leaned back, resting his head in his hands with a superior smile. “The only rational explanation is a higher power was controlling it. Nothing else makes sense. Why would I dream of things I’m incapable of observing? Isn’t it more sensible I’d imagine new worlds and the wonders of space, rather than how I was born? But a greater intellect would want to know where I came from, and remind me of my own humble beginnings, instead of my inflated ego. Again, both our supporters and detractors will be intrigued, especially if they think further evidence will prove their prior beliefs correct.”
Stanley cracked a smile, seeing a way out for the first time. “We can definitely sell that. It’s weak, but the debates it triggers will keep everyone from focusing on how we screwed up.”
“Remember, every late night comedian will make fun of us for the next five years,” Robert reminded them.
“Yeah, but it will keep the story in the news, and when there’s a debate, there’s curiosity,” Stanley said, his smile growing brighter.
“So you’re willing to go along with this?” Robert asked, surprised.
“Hell, yes! As Eric says, what choice do we have? It’s either this, or we all move to East Mongolia.”
The project director turned back to the subject of their evaporating investigation. “What about you?”
“I’m still not sure what I believe, but I have no problem admitting to what I observed and letting them come to their own conclusions.”
His boss grunted, but nodded his head. “Okay, so we’ve at least got a tactic, but we’ll need to cover our bases. We also need a complete physical and a psych evaluation.”
“We’ll also need to perform a full investigation to assure everyone that nothing occurred behind the scenes,” Stanley said. “That means every corner of this project will be turned upside down. What’s more, it’ll mean you won’t be able to shit without seeing a reporter’s camera. Do you think you’re up for it?”
“Hell, that’s what I signed up for,” he answered with a grin. “I’ve been preparing for that scenario for the last few years. As you suggest, they won’t allow me into space again. So once everyone turns their attention to discovering an answer, I can disappear into the woodwork, only appearing whenever we make a new discovery.”
Directory Stanley smiled. “This just might work.”
Robert and Stanley led Eric through NASA’s regional headquarters, heading for the medical facilities at the far end of the complex. He expected they wanted him to be escorted, but figured they’d assign a security guard to babysit him. The fact that the director personally escorted him said something significant, but he wasn’t sure what. Either the upset hornet’s nest troubled him to the point he couldn’t let it go, or he had something else in mind.