David slowly opened his eyes to the bright morning sun. He wasn’t ready to wake up. Still, the morning air coming through the open window was crisp and invigorating. He kicked his legs over the side of the bed and looked back at the empty space where his wife slept. Every morning, she left to her job at the hospital before the sun rose. He missed being able to snuggle with her when they woke up, but her job helped pay the bills and save to buy a home.
After his morning routine was complete, David headed out of their apartment and down the road to the bus stop. His job always started mid-morning because the scientists he supported were late risers. He appreciated this habit of theirs. Most of the time, he would still get home the same time as or earlier than Kathy because her shifts were long. On the days they both worked late, he would pick up fast food or something else to eat on the way.
The bus ride to work was only fifteen minutes. Before he injured his knee, he biked to work. He would again, but he still wore a brace and didn’t like the feel of it while riding. His physical therapist said it would do him good, but he preferred working it out in other ways.
Walking into the building was the usual obstacle course of security. First, he badged into a subway style gate that led him through a metal detector. He dropped his keys and lunch onto a conveyor belt for an X-ray. Security guards watched him throughout. They knew him, so their gazes were bored and uninterested. He picked up his belongings on the other side and continued to a bank of elevators. From the outside, the building was an unassuming single-story commercial building without any interesting adornments other than plain white lettering that said, “McIntyre Labs” across the door. The elevators, of course, took him underground. Five stories down and the door opened onto a second security room. Here his belongings were checked physically. Even his food was opened, and a small sample was tested for bomb residue. While this was going on, David entered a room on the right, stripped naked in front of a male guard and changed into a clean pair of company underwear and light grey jumpsuit. He took his name badge from a shelf on the wall and pinned it to the jumpsuit.
David Blake was a level 2 technician in the lab. His job was a bunch of mundane maintenance and simple research tasks on the lab equipment. He was well aware of his value though. Even small errors could have disastrous consequences. The lab was a physics engineering lab that worked on creation of new particle beam technologies. Their primary goal was to develop new propulsion devices. The security was necessary because numerous other institutions knew they were making significant advancements but hadn’t been able to keep up with McIntyre Labs. They wanted to steal information from the lab and had tried to bribe several employees. David had been one of those employees, but he informed his employer instead of turning spy. He received a nice Christmas bonus a few weeks later.
Today was similar to any other. David went to his workstation and began powering up the devices needed for running the experiments. He saw his counterpart at the other end of the test tunnel reach his station as well. He gave the other tech a wave, which was passively returned. Usually, Jerome was more enthusiastic in the morning. He had a serious caffeine addiction and would be bouncing off the walls in the morning. David wondered what was bringing him down this morning and decided he would check on him at lunch.
The first two hours of the daily routine experiments went without issues. During the fifth experiment of the day though, David noticed odd numbers coming from the sensors in his equipment. He quickly ran through his troubleshooting protocol and found nothing concerning on his end. He glanced up at his counterpart and his jaw dropped.
Jerome was standing in the particle corridor between the two workstations. The particle beams were passing through him. He was standing still with that passive, glazed look on his face. His body twitched a few times and he collapsed. The beam seemed to shudder as he fell, and a part of the beam reflected off Jerome’s name badge into David’s workstation. He felt a searing pain as it passed through his shoulder. The pain was only momentary as the beam immediately went back to its original position. David reached out to hit the emergency stop button on his console with his good hand, the other hanging uselessly at his side.
An alarm sounded, but the system did not shut down. The particle beam grew brighter and brighter until David could no longer look directly at it. He saw that Jerome’s body was smoking in the place it fell. David was certain Jerome was dead. He hit the button again, still nothing. The alarms were still blaring, but now David could hear a low rumble coming from all around him. The rumble increased in volume and intensity and was now accompanied by a high whine.
Everything increased in volume until David rolled into a ball on the floor trying to protect his ears. His eyes were tightly closed when a hot white flash blinded him through his eyelids and an enormous explosion ripped through the fabric of the universe.
A black emptiness surrounded him. Clouds of blue, green, and purple smoke swirled through the darkness. He found he could make small movements, but still felt the hard floor beneath him. He reached out to the nearest cloud of smoke and his fingers passed through without feeling. The smoke followed his fingers as he traced them through the air. He tried to push himself from the invisible floor and could not. It felt as though a thousand pounds were sitting on his chest. He could only move his arms to touch the smoke around him. He was cold and when he touched the swirling clouds an even deeper chill ran up his arms and into his chest.
Without warning, the invisible ground beneath him disappeared and he was floating loose in the emptiness. He had no idea how to propel himself and simply looked around as he floated, hoping to see some answer to escape this endless abyss. Time passed with no meaning and David began to lose his sense of self. He began hallucinating. Visions of his life flashed through his mind. Sometimes he recognized the visions for what they were, not real, and other times he tried to interact with the memories.
A vision of a beautiful woman snapped him back to his senses. His wife Kathy. He needed to get to Kathy. He was stuck in this vast nothingness but had to find a way to her. Fighting with the urge to fall back into complacent nostalgia, he focused on Kathy. The last time he spoke to her was at the dining room table. They were working on a puzzle, and she needed to go to bed. He remained to work on the puzzle until late into the night.
Before she left, he had looked at her face, thinking how lucky he was to have her in his life. They were a perfect match. Both had productive careers and similar passions. They were happy. David needed to get back to Kathy.
He began to picture her at that kitchen table working on that puzzle. The memory was fresher than any other and he could hold onto as he pictured her. He thought about her scent and then the scents of their home. He began to feel a warmth come over him as he focused on the image. Her delicate hands sorting through pieces as he watched.
He gasped as the image distorted and he could suddenly see Kathy sitting at the table looking forlornly at a slice of chocolate cake. What memory was this? She sniffed and took a bite. He could smell the cake and other food. Looking at the table, he saw dishes and baskets full of food. Some of the dishes were partially eaten, while others looked untouched.
Kathy sniffed and he looked back at her. He reached out to touch her, his fingers moved through her arm as easily as the smoke, and she shivered. Did he cause that?
“Kathy why are you crying?” he asked, his voice raspy as though he hadn’t used it in weeks.
She shivered again in response and gave another sniff. Tears slowly rolled down her cheeks as she ate the cake. It was one of the saddest sights he’d ever taken in.
He looked around again. Why couldn’t she see him? Why couldn’t she feel him?
Then he saw it, a small shrine. His picture looking out among some candles and flowers arranged around the room. He drifted over to the shrine. A book was sitting nearby and was open. People had signed condolences in the book. Finally, he realized.
He looked back to Kathy. His presence had chilled her. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Now that he understood, he needed to leave. He didn’t know how he managed to be here or where he would go next, but he needed to leave Kathy to build herself back up. He whispered goodbye in her ear. She shivered once more and sobbed. And then he let go of his focus. The smoke overtook him, and he began floating once more. This time letting his mind drift, losing himself once more.