James Doyle scratched the nape of his thick neck, the jagged ends of his bitten fingernails prickling his skin uncomfortably. Dr. Marron was watching him from the screen, patiently waiting for his reply.
“James,” Dr. Marron spoke quietly, although the speakers surrounding him made his words echo loudly throughout the chamber, “It is impertinent you state you understand.”
“What does it matter,” he retorted to the man sitting comfortably in his white lab coat and large leather chair trillions of miles away, “I will die on Earth or I will die in this black hole. No matter how you cut it, I’m serving my death sentence.”
“You don’t know that you’ll die,” Dr. Marron calmly answered.
“Well, how am I supposed to live after I turn into this sort of spaghetti?”
“Spaghettification isn’t well understood.”
James hated the term. It was such a funny, harmless word for the morbid way black holes rip you apart atom by atom once you pass the spinning vortex of the event horizon toward its infinitely dense center. The physicist must have forgotten he explained this to him within the first year of his launch from Earth towards the massive black hole in their very own Milky Way, Sagittarius A*.
“Besides,” Dr. Marron started again, “Spaghettification only happens in smaller black holes as we’ve learned. Sagittarius A* is four million times heavier than our sun. Your head will be pulled in just as fast as your feet. No spaghettification.”
James knew this. For the past four and a half years he’s been travelling—five thousand times the speed of light—he’d actually been intently listening to Dr. Marron’s lessons. James thought back to when he was a boy, fascinated by space as his father pointed out constellations and planets.
His gut sickeningly churned at the memory and how disappointed his father was with him. He had refused to visit him in jail or answer his calls or letters. Overwhelming guilt shadowed his mind as he thought about how he got to this point.
Six years ago—drunk at a bar like he was every weekend—he got in a fight. Or so eyewitnesses said. He was far too gone in whiskey to grab hold of any memory of that night. When he came to the next morning, he found his hands and feet cuffed so tightly they were cutting into his skin. Noticing he was laying on a cot in a jail, he croaked in a raspy voice for water. The cops either ignored him or shot him crude glares.
He learned later as a lawyer with large purple bags under his eyes and crumpled suit jacket dragged him into a room and told him to admit guilt, he had already situated a plea bargain. When James asked him guilty for what, the lawyer—his name was Lance…or maybe Larry—told him the murder of two sisters at the bar, both the only daughters of some large, wealthy political family.
He also learned that the lawyer had lied to him. There was no plea bargain. James admitted guilt to stabbing the girls to death, and he was placed on death row. The lawyer promptly closed the files in front of him and walked out without meeting his eyes.
James felt lost and defeated. He was unable to conjure up any memories of that night of his own, but he was sure he didn’t murder those girls. He wasn’t a violent drunk. The days ticked away, and James grew more and more depressed.
Until Dr. Earl Marron entered his cell and introduced himself as lead physicist in the former NASA’s well-known and booming Artemis program. Dr. Marron had been working for the Artemis program since he graduated Harvard at sixteen. Forty years later, he found himself at the top, leading expeditions of selected death row inmates into the Milky Way’s black hole, 165 quadrillion miles away. Only one hundred years ago, the first ship in space to travel a thousand times faster than the speed of light was created. Since then, Dr. Marron’s team created the Legacy Lightship which travels five times as fast, cutting the time it takes to get to the black hole from twenty-five thousand light years to five. James hasn’t figured out whether that’s lucky news for him or not. Exchanging one death sentence for another didn’t seem lucky. The only reason James took the job of going into the black hole to collect data was for the faint possibility that if he did manage to survive, his record would be wiped clean, and he’d be allowed to live comfortably wherever he chooses.
However, travelling in the Legacy Lightship at five thousand times the speed of light and listening to Dr. Marron’s lessons every day on the screen above him dimmed his hope. He learned about how light isn’t even capable of escaping the surface called the event horizon. He learned that time and space swap roles, where time comes to a standstill and space moves instead. Once at the surface, travelling outside of its pull is as impossible as travelling back in time on Earth. The gravitational singularity at the center of the black hole is where the density is infinite, and once sucked in he would most likely be crushed, even though Dr. Marron never admitted this when asked.
No inmate ever made it back from the hole, but they did get five extra years of life on the ship out of the deal. Was it worth it though?
“James,” Dr. Marron spoke calmly. James peered up through his fingers at him on the screen, “time is almost up. Soon I won’t have the bandwidth to communicate with you. Do you understand how the electromagnetic bath works?”
“Yes,” he finally said, his shoulders slumping. It wasn’t worth it, he decided. He would have rather died years ago than be alone without anybody to talk to for the next five months. It was hard getting through the years with only Dr. Marron, he may just die of loneliness before making it there.
“Will you please explain it back to me,” the voice reverberated off the walls around him.
“The electromagnetic bath is an ice cold plunge I must sit in for the next five months until the timer goes off. It triggers the atoms in my body to form a magnetic bond with the atoms next to it, so that if I do spaghettify or fall apart, my atoms will reconnect if next to each other in the hole…like magnets. Then I am to eject from the vessel towards Sagittarius A*.”
“Dr. Marron?” James watched his eyebrows raise in question, “will this hurt?”
He tried to keep a level tone, but the fear in his voice was there all the same. The electromagnetic bath was a new invention and never tested. The searing pain of being torn apart was enough for the imagination…but being popped back together? What if the atoms don’t connect correctly and he comes out looking like a monster? Or worse, what if only half the body is snapped back together?
“This is part of the study. It’s why you have nanoparticle trackers in your bloodstream. We’re not only attempting to follow your journey, but your experience with reassembly.”
Despite the murders James had supposedly been guilty of, Dr. Marron was always kind and honest with him. Where James felt panic ebbing through him, something about Dr. Marron kept him collected. He was the only one who saw through James’ conviction for the man he felt he truly was: innocent.
“It’s been a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you these past few years,” he said, giving James a small smile. “Have faith and courage.”
James nodded goodbye, fighting the sensation to laugh and cry. Faith and courage were something he felt very little of.
The next five months were grueling. Racing through space towards Sagittarius A*, he fought back the tantrum he wanted to throw while plunging himself into the bath. It looked like water but when he dropped his feet in, the substance had a gel like consistency. Dr. Marron had promised him he wouldn’t drown, it was designed to absorb into the lungs as if he was breathing in air. It would take some getting used to but taking deep breaths in and out would help.
James did just that, feeling his lungs turn to ice. His body cycled uncomfortably from too hot or too cold as he laid submerged. He quickly lost all sense of time. Had he been in here for a month? A week? A day? Measurement of time very loosely existed out here, and even less so as he approached the event horizon. What did time even matter, anyways? He had no more connection with Earth or Dr. Marron anyhow.
The timer went off eventually. It took James awhile to move. He couldn’t tell if he was hallucinating the buzzing noise or if it was real. When he did move, he was surprised to find that his body wasn’t stiff at all. His joints felt well lubricated with the gel that had absorbed into his body. He felt good, like he was back in his twenties instead of his forties. Not a single ache in his new body. He smiled, but only for a moment. Passing by the small circular window on the ship, he caught a glimpse of the massive expanse of the black hole.
It was the most daunting void he had ever seen. It was unnerving seeing pictures of it in books and videos when he was in school but staring at its pure nothingness made him feel lightheaded. He always imagined it as making some sort of monstrous ripping sound as it shredded stars and matter that dared come too close and he was more horrified to find that it was deafeningly quiet. He wished Dr. Marron was on the screen to offer words to soothe the panic attack he was on the verge of having.
“Have faith and courage,” he had said. What little James had before, he felt none of now.
He knew he couldn’t stay on the ship. The inmate aboard the first model of Legacy refused to leave, and the ship booted him out anyways. It cost too much time and money to send a person out here, they weren’t going to let anybody come back without data. Especially a death row inmate.
Dr. Morran had fitted him with a special made suit of thin reflective scales that made him think of snakeskin. It was lightweight, the material designed to withstand any temperature from Planck temperature down to absolute zero. This is helpful, since the event horizon is extremely hot whereas the center of Sagittarius A* had been measured by a previous inmate before he disappeared at only one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero.
It fit snugly over his face and body. Dr. Marron had been keeping him on a strict diet and weight check for the past five years to insure there wouldn’t be any gaps or stretching of the suit. James looked through the glass lenses fused over the eyeholes of the suit back out the window. The hole was patiently waiting to collect him.
Before he could chicken out, he slammed his fist on the eject button and was sucked out through a tube below him on the floor, blasting him out directly towards the hole. He felt tears stinging his eyes as he floated towards it, feeling its pull. He had entered the point of no return. It was a bizarre sensation. He felt his lungs like bricks in his chest, breathing hard through the suit, fighting Sagittarius A* for the oxygen it was already ripping out of him. He let out a yell, but there was no noise. It was as silent as if he were deaf. He saw the hole but doubted if he was really seeing it at all. It was impossibly black. He knew he wasn’t blind simply because of the small streams of light whirling by like small glowing particles of sand. He couldn’t tell if the light was passing through him or going around him.
He lifted his hand to touch a beam of light. What he saw should have made him panic, but it was so painless and dreamlike he couldn’t bring himself to care. His hands were turning into the same sandy stream as the light particles. He could feel his body loosening as he gently fell apart, atom by atom. Time stood completely still; it was strange how he could feel its shift. The only thing that moved, was matter. Simultaneously things moved, not fast or slow. Was he hurling at an impossible speed towards the hole or standing still? He could feel all the air escape his lungs, but he didn’t need it anymore. He was nowhere, yet everywhere. He existed while never existing. The rush of the hole crushed him inwards, twisting and shifting the particles, a silent entwining of light and flesh. Space moved where time didn’t.
He blinked up at the popcorn ceiling in his tiny studio apartment. A small buzzing noise sounded in his ears, a light headache throbbing against his temples. He slowly stood, feeling the ache in his neck as if he slept on it wrong.
He was in a black hole, and now he was here? Home? He peered down at his trembling fingers. They were still there, although he could have sworn, he felt the grit of sand on them just a moment ago. He touched the soft blanket that he was laying on top of, a hazy yellow stream of light pouring in through the window beside him. He watched dust particles float lazily by in the light. What day was it? What time? He was back where time mattered, he could feel it…had he ever even left? Did he dream it all up in a drunken stupor?
“You were guilty,” came a voice from a chair across the room. James jumped, seeing Dr. Marron sitting calmly with his legs crossed.
James looked at him, his voice hoarse, “Guilty?”
“You did murder those girls in a drunken rage. But that was then. This is now.”
James tried to talk, but his mouth was dry. His tongue stuck to the side of his cheek. There it was again, in his mouth. The gritty texture he had felt on his hands. He slid his tongue across his teeth. They felt soft and sandy.
“While you rest, let me explain. I don’t have much time.”
Dr. Marron stood slowly, buttoning his suit jacket and straightening his tie, “You murdered those girls, and you were on death row. I sent you into a black hole to gather data. You did not dream that.
“But once you fell through the hole, you were dropped into a new reality. Remember how I told you, time and space swap roles in a black hole?”
James nodded slowly.
“You can’t travel outside once you enter the event horizon…but you can travel time.”
“How is this p…possible?”
“You fell into an infinitely dense space into one of infinite universes.”
Dr. Marron smiled lightly, “Oh, this is still Earth. Just a different version. In this version, Sagittarius A* doesn’t exist. You never fell through a black hole. You never murdered those girls. You haven’t even stepped foot in that bar because you don’t even drink.”
James wiped the grit from his eyes, accepting the glass of water Dr. Marron handed to him. He looked passed him, noting there were no bottles of liquor stocked on his counter like usual. Even more strange, he didn’t feel a thirst for it. “How…how are you here? How do you know all this?”
“I’ve travelled through many black holes. I exist in many universes as do you.”
“But how do you know I was in one?”
“Because I am in the universe that allows me to know. In others I don’t know you travelled into a black hole. Many I don’t know you at all. In some, I’m the one who killed those girls and you tossed me in a black hole.”
James was confused. So many questions collided in his mind, “Why did you do this for me?”
“Not so much for you. More for the girls in another universe you murdered.”
“So, they’re alive here?”
“But…aren’t they still dead in the universe I just left?”
Dr. Marron nodded, “Yes, but you no longer exist in that universe either. As far as I see justice is served to them, and you are given a second chance here.”
James mulled it over, standing slowly from the bed and glancing out the window. It looked very much the same as any other day he ever lived. His legs shook under him. He grabbed the window ledge, noting bits of sand tumbling along the ledge.
He turned to see Dr. Marron, a million thoughts racing through his mind.
“You will want to rest a bit more,” he said, extending his hand. James released his grip from the ledge and took it, shaking it slowly, “I traced the nanoparticles in your bloodstream to your apartment. When I found you, only half of you was assembled. Your atoms are still connecting together, and some are probably still floating around this very room trying to make their way back.” He whirred his finger in the air above them. “Good thing the electromagnetic bath worked, hm?”
He gave a soft chuckle, making his way for the door. James called out, “what about the data?”
“Dr. Marron shot him a coy smile, “You reassembled, didn’t you? That’s all I needed to see.”
He left the room, granting James Doyle the clean record and freedom he was promised. He walked towards the kitchen, picked up the phone and with shaking hands dialed his father.