Sunday, April 21, 2019

Day 7 - We Will Return

A combination of work and a distinct lack of energy meant that I stayed stuck on Day 7 for quite some time. But I knew what I wanted to write, even if I struggled to turn it into words on the page. However, with the Easter weekend here I've finally had a chance to decompress and relax and the creativity has come flooding back. I'll aim to get back on track with the challenge from this point on...

We Will Return

The oxygen reading is blinking in the red as the escape pod clears patch space and blossoms into reality. I look at it for what feels like the hundredth time, and then wonder for the hundredth time whether the distress signal will reach anyone before my oxygen finally runs out. The pod tumbles through space, tracing an arcing trajectory that will bring it to an Earth re-entry orbit within eight days. Which, if I have done my calculations correctly, will be about seven days and five hours too late.

I try not to think about the probability of this working out. As the old song goes, you’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Besides, after having defied the odds to escape the Proxima before it was destroyed, after having hand-calculated the ridiculously complex equations necessary to escape n-dimensional space, it would seem rather unfair that I ended up being defeated by something as mundane as oxygen.

I rerun the events of Proxima in my head and they don’t quite make sense. The drive was functioning perfectly, we were in patch space and all systems were operating at an optimal level. I was in the engine room, monitoring the diagnostics and we were in the green across the board. There was no reason to believe anything was about to go wrong, even with the benefit of hindsight. But go wrong it did.

Something happened.

I don’t know what that something was because it was so violent that I was flung across the engine room and must have blacked out. When I finally came to, alarms were blaring and the board was red; life support critical, matter-anti matter containment close to failing, structural integrity field far beyond any of the design parameters. Proxima was dying.

I looked at the displays, emotions falling to the wayside as I considered my situation with an icy cold logic. Over an hour had passed since the event that had rendered me unconscious, and even my most optimistic analysis of the situation told me that I had less than five minutes to reach the escape pod or be destroyed along with the ship.

I used the intercom to ping the bridge but there was no answer. Lots of possible scenarios; Mike and Ellen had been killed during whatever happened, they had been unable to contact me and so had to leave me behind, they were still there trapped on the bridge. None of them mattered. It would take me more than fifteen minutes to get from the engine room to the bridge, even assuming that the pylons hadn’t been compromised. Based on the read-outs, there was a good chance that it would be impossible to reach the bridge. I had no choice.

I’ve told myself that a lot. And it’s true. But it doesn’t help the hot blend of anger and shame that wells up inside me every time I think of my decision to use the escape pod on my own. Of course, one voice in my head reassures me, if you had been able to take them then the oxygen would have run out long before you cleared patch space. Although, chimes in another voice, Ellen was so much better at the maths than you; maybe she’d have done the calculations a lot quicker and got you all home safe.

I can’t ever know. And so it’s just me, tumbling through space and wondering if I will ever get to see my family again. Oxygen reading still blinking red.

I’d promised Diana that I’d make it back, that this test flight wasn’t anywhere near as risky as the press were making it out to be. The automated flights had all gone perfectly, completely by the book. Sure, the press were making it out to be the most dangerous mission in the history of mankind, but we knew different. We knew that we were about to make history as the first humans to orbit another star. We will return, I’d promised her; I won’t leave you and Thomas. And she’d smiled at me and kissed me and believed me. So I held onto that promise, tried to regulate my breathing just as they’d taught us in the simulations even while I felt so very tired. I try not to think about Thomas, just the thought of him makes me well up with tears.

I try hard to keep my eyes open, try to focus, but the desire to close them is just too strong. Just for a second, whispers the voice in my head, just close them for a second and everything will be fine. I let my eyelids close and give into the darkness.

* * *

White light, loud voices. I’m on my back, I think. I try to open my eyes but it’s so very hard and they don’t seem to want to obey my command.

“He’s coming round,” says a voice from somewhere nearby.

“Hit him again,” says another voice.

A warm sensation floods through my body and I give into the blackness again.


“Is he going to wake up?” says a man’s voice from my left.

“Any minute now,” says a woman from somewhere further away, “But, I want it on the record that I was opposed to this and that I am only doing this under duress. I will be registering an official complaint.”

“Feel free to register whatever you want, doctor” says another male voice from my right, this voice colder and calmer than the first, “this is a matter of national security. Now is he going to be lucid?”

“I can’t guarantee anything; his body is still healing, he shouldn’t even be conscious.”

“Whatever it takes,” said the second voice, “You do whatever it takes.”

I try to ask what’s going on, but nothing comes out other than a cracked murmur. My mouth is dry and my throat parched. Eyelids so heavy.

“He’s coming around,” says the first voice.

“He needs water,” says the doctor, and a moment later I feel something hard pressed against my lips; a trickle of water into my mouth that I take in like it’s the most wonderful thing in the world because, in that moment, it is.

My eyes flicker half open, the room blurry. My head feels heavy, like a hangover but worse. Two men in dark suits are standing either side of me. I try to sit up, but I can’t move.

“Don’t bother trying to get up,” says the man on my left, “You’re in restraints.”

I feel bands of pressure over my legs, my waist, my chest. There is a coldness against my wrists, something metallic holding them in place.

“Where am I?” I ask, my voice little more than a hoarse whisper.

“You’re in a secure medical facility,” says the man on my right, “And you are restrained for your own safety and wellbeing.”

From across the room, I hear the doctor scoff.

“That will be all, doctor. Your presence is no longer required. Please leave us alone with the-,” the man pauses for a moment, “-patient.”

My eyesight is gradually improving; I am in a small room surrounded by banks of medical equipment. I am handcuffed to the metal railings of the hospital bed.

“What is this?” I ask, “What’s going on?”

“We’ll be asking the questions,” says the man on my right. He’s in his thirties; square jaw, blonde hair trimmed short; everything about him screams ex-military.

“Dr. Knowles,” says the man on my right, older with greying hair and glasses. “John; I’m Agent Melville and this is Agent Hendricks. We’re just trying to get to the bottom of this, we need to understand exactly what happened.”

My head feels like it is full of cold porridge; it’s a battle just to string two clear thoughts together.

“With the Proxima?”

“Start there,” said Melville, “what do you remember?”

“Patch space,” I said, the words coming slowly, “everything going well. Then something happened. Blacked out. The Proxima was falling apart. I got out-”

“What about Captain Adams and Dr. Cooper?” said Agent Hendricks, interrupting, “Where were they when all of this was going on?”

“The bridge,“ I said, my voice fading with every word, “they were on the bridge.”

“That’s enough,” said the doctor, storming back into the room, “Any more and you could kill him.”

Agent Melville bent over me, looking at me closely.

“One last question,” he says, his face expressionless. “What was the name of your first dog?”

The leap from to the events aboard the Proxima to my first dog, leaves me even more confused than before.


“It’s an easy question,” says Agent Hendricks, “Answer it.”

I dig into my memories, it’s hard to hold onto them but eventually the name comes.

“Jasper,” I say, “his name was Jasper.”

“He’s all yours,” said Agent Melville, standing up and walking to the doorway before pausing “But we’re going to be back and we’re going to have more questions for you. A lot more questions.”

* * *

Agent Melville clicks the record button.

“This is interview seven, commencing,” he says, before looking at me, “Are you ready, Dr. Knowles?”

I nod.

“Let the record show that Dr. Knowles has just nodded his head. Please could you confirm that verbally for the tape?”

“I’m ready,” I say, and sit up in my chair a little. The chains that restrain my hands and ankles jingle lightly as I do so.

“We have been through the timeline of the Proxima with you a number of times, Dr. Knowles, and you have been consistent in your version of events-“

“-because they’re true,” I interrupt, “They’re not my version of events. It’s what happened.”

“As you say,” said Agent Melville, adjusting his glasses on the brim of his nose and peering down at a set of files on the table that I was unable to see from my vantage point. “It’s just there are a number of other inconsistencies with your story. A couple of things that just don’t seem to add up.”

“Look, I’ve told you the truth ten different times and I’ve not changed my story. What things don’t add up? When are you going to let me out of here? When are you going to let me see my family? Why can’t I have a lawyer?”

“What date is it, Dr. Knowles?” asks Agent Hendricks.

“I don’t know,” I reply, angrily, “I don’t know how long I’ve been locked in here. You never turn the lights off so I don’t know what’s day and what’s night anymore.”

“Take a best guess,” he says, “Ballpark figure.”

I do the calculations in my head. The incident on the Proxima had taken place on January 23rd; accounting for the time in transit, the time spent healing, the multiple interview sessions. It had to be at least a month.

“Late February,” I say, “Maybe early March.”

“Interesting,” says Agent Hendricks and jots something down with a pen.

“What’s interesting?”

“What if I told you, it’s October 29th?” said Agent Melville, cocking his head to look at me.

“That’s impossible.”

“Is it?” he says, and pushes a copy of the New York Times across the table to me. I look at it, look at it hard. It says October 29th; the front page is the Cleveland Indians celebrating their first World Series win in a century. 

“What is this?” I ask, “This is a fake, right?”

“What was the name of your best friend at elementary school, John?” asks Agent Hendricks.

“What is it with all this questions about my childhood?” I snap, “My first dog, my first kiss, my best friend? What is this? What does it have to do with anything?”

“What if I told you that Captain Mike Adams and Dr. Ellen Cooper are alive and well?” asks Melville.

“They’re alive? They’re really alive?” For the first time in weeks, I feel hope flourish and my heart swell.

“They’re alive,” says Agent Hendricks. “They arrived into the solar system three days after the incident aboard the Proxima. Their escape pod was badly damaged, our guys say it was a miracle they made it.”

I break into the first smile I’ve had in what feels like months.

“Oh my God, that’s amazing,” I say, emotions washing over me suddenly, “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.”

“Yeah,” says Hendricks, his face hard. “The funny thing is, you were on board that escape pod as well.”

I frown. “What? No, I was alone in the escape pod.”

“You were alone in the escape pod we found you in, that’s true,” replies Agent Melville, with something of a grimace, “But there was also a Dr. Knowles in the escape pod together with Captain Adams and Dr. Cooper.”

“That’s impossible,” I say, pulling back in my seat and making the chains go taut. “That’s impossible.”

“Certainly is strange,” says Agent Hendricks, “Because, if Dr. Knowles was in that escape pod we rescued back in January then who the hell are you?”

* * *

They say there are five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I spent the first few weeks in denial. They showed me the in-module camera footage and I insisted it had to be a fake. They showed me the photos of the rescue, the footage from the parade celebrating their return. I railed against it all.

Then came the anger. The facts kept piling up, and it didn’t make any sense. I was locked up, I couldn’t see my family, I was being treated like a criminal. I refused the interviews, but it seemed that I’d exhausted my value in that sense because they started sending a therapist instead. I refused to talk to them as well, refused to eat for a week even though my stomach was gnawing at me.

Bargaining began in earnest the second week of my hunger strike. I’d lie in bed and promise God that if he would just let me wake up from this nightmare, if he would just put things back the way they were, then I’d do anything he wanted. I’d become a believer, I promised. I’d become an evangelist if that’s what it took. Just give me back my life and my family. But I guess God wasn’t listening as nothing changed.

I ate on the third week.

The therapist came and we finally started talking. They didn’t ask about the Proxima, they asked how I felt about all of this. I told them, truthfully, that I thought I was beyond feeling. I felt numb, like I was looking at myself out-of-body somehow. I felt like I had given all the emotion I had to give and that I was now just an empty vessel. I’d left anger behind and entered depression.

Two weeks later, the therapist came with a portable screen and told me that they wanted to show me something. It was a chart; lots of numbers but I recognised it as a DNA analysis.

“See these,” said the therapist, “pointing at two tiny yellow dots in one column, “these represent such a minor anomaly that they would normally never be detected.”

“This is me?”

“This is you compared to Dr. Knowles; the real Dr. Knowles.”

“I am the real Dr. Knowles,” I replied.

“I know,” said the therapist, with what may have been a trace of sympathy in her smile. “I know you believe that, John. But it’s not true. Would you like me to tell you what we believe really happened?”

I shrugged.

“What we believe happened, is that the Proxima was attacked by a third party – an alien race – and that this third party made a copy of Dr. Knowles; a copy not just of his DNA but also his memories and personality. We’ve tested you, you know everything he does down to the most minute detail. And for some time, we’d thought you were 100% identical. But this new test has revealed the tiniest of discrepancies in your DNA profiles. It’s a minute difference, but it is a difference. You contain a fragment of DNA that has never been seen before on this planet.”

I slumped in my seat. It went against everything I knew, everything I believed.

“It doesn’t make sense,” I said finally, “Why go through all of this just to have me sit here?”

“Our current theory is that whoever made you believed they had destroyed the original escape pod. The pod containing the three survivors of the Proxima was recovered in an extremely damaged state. Damage consistent with some kind of external energy discharge. We believe only you were meant to return to Earth.”

“But if this is true, why?” I asked, “I don’t have any plans or mission. I just wanted to come home and see my family…”

“We don’t know. Maybe your mission instructions are buried deep within you. Maybe they are time coded. We don’t know and we can’t take any further risks.”

“What does that mean?”

The therapist stood up and walked to the door, a translucent cube descending around me as she did so.

“It means,” she said, “that it’s been decided you need to be terminated.”

And, finally, acceptance.

* * *

They keep me encased within the cube for the next two days. No food, no drink. Finally, a visitor arrives.

I laugh when I seem him, it all feels somehow ridiculous at this stage. He half smiles and shuts the door behind him, walking across the room and taking a seat beside the cube.

“Dr Knowles,” he says.

“Dr Knowles,” I reply and look him up and down. He’s clean shaven, whereas I now have a beard (they didn’t trust me with a razor), but it’s unmistakably me. It shouldn’t be impossible, but I don’t even have a problem accepting it.

“I insisted that they let me see you,” he says, “you know, before it happens.”

“Before they kill me, you mean?”

“Yeah,” he says, pausing to look me up and down. “This is really strange. Stranger than I thought it would be.”

“Why are you here?”

“I wanted to be here, when they ended it. It felt the right thing to do.”

“And that’s happening soon?”

“It’s already happening,” he says, with a grimace. “They’ve started pumping a nerve agent into the air supply. They’ve assured me that you won’t feel a thing.”

I sigh. So this is it, this is the end. Everything felt wrong about it.

“Look,” he says, “I wanted you to know the truth. It’s only fair.”

“What truth?”

“We put the anomaly into your DNA. We had to be sure that they’d think you were alien.”

My lungs feel heavier than normal, breathing getting a little harder.

“Who did? What?”

“Us,” says the other me, “We can make perfect copies of humans; that was never a problem. But we needed to have you think that you found a way to detect us. That way, we can make sure that anyone who gets in the way of our plans can easily be dealt with; one quick injection and they’ll display the same anomaly, be found to be an alien imposter. We thought of everything.”

“But that means-“

“Yes, that means that you are the real Dr. Knowles.”

I wheezed, my lungs felt like they were lined with sand. My head felt heavy.

“But, Diana?” I gasped. “Thomas?”

“Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ll look after her and Thomas. I’ve got your memories, after all. I know what it means to love them.”

I can’t breathe. Can’t move. My legs give way beneath me. The other me watches as my eyes slowly slide shut.

“I’ll keep your promise,” are the last words I ever hear.

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