Outside the Box
By D. A. D'Amico
Paul DeLentus had traveled seventeen centimeters along the marking grid by the end of the first day. If rescue were possible, it would've come long ago.
A curious effect of the field prevented him from altering his path. The speed of his gait didn't matter; his progress through the chamber remained fixed. His attempts to turn back had proven futile, and he found himself chasing the test beam no matter which way he turned.
By the beginning of the second day, he realized he'd never see his wife again. The displacement was nearly ten thousand to one. DeLentus' accidental foray into altering the speed of light in an energy matrix had moved him out of her world, and Maria would die of old age long before he reached the one meter mark.
The test beam hovered like a neon rod in front of him, a stream of bright ruby caught in midair. The energy field had equalized it. He'd chase its radiance until they reached the end.
A smoky shadow drifted towards him on a tangential path, an imperfect hologram of his Maria coalescing from the sparkling mist like a ghost. Her expression appeared haggard, her long black hair disheveled. She looked years older.
She held a sign. "We're working on a method to truncate the energy chamber, hoping to cut you off at a quarter meter. P.S. You owe me three anniversary presents, and they better be big."
He glanced at the marking grid. He'd traveled almost twice that width.
Then it hit him. Three years had passed for her, but she still cared. She struggled and planned, somehow kept the project going all that time, while he strolled through the years like cold tar. He hoped he'd have done the same if he were in her position.
He ate a granola bar, one of the many things Maria had thoughtfully placed in his pockets the morning of the test, and wished he could give up. Everyone he'd ever loved would be dead before he took his next full step, and he had meters to go before he exited the field. The futility of his situation had finally sunken in. He'd never see her again.
He stopped walking and dropped to the floor in despair. What was the point in going on? There was nothing to head towards.
The second ghost brought him to his feet. Maria's image drifted by, more solid, clearly defined against the persistent haze. The sign she carried was much easier to read.
"Five years. We're trying something different. If you can read this, the end is near. I haven't given up on you. I never will."
He watched her image fade into the edges of the chamber, drawn inexorably on its path. He wondered what future engineers would think when the message finally squeezed through the field and out the other end of the energy box. Would they realize what he'd lost?
Help never came. He'd traveled another hand's width of centimeters without contact, without hope. Decades had passed in the outside world. Whatever trick they'd planned had clearly failed. DeLentus remained alone.
He felt like Ebenezer Scrooge as a third apparition appeared from the white noise. Like that character, DeLentus wished for nothing more than to be left alone. This holographic image must have traveled for decades to reach him this deep in the box. The woman responsible could not possibly be alive.
The image had improved considerably, although Maria had aged as much as ten years by the time she'd recorded it. Her dark hair had greyed at the edges, and typical of her disdain for vanity, she hadn't bothered to dye it. Her eyes appeared moist, haunted. The last decade had been difficult for her.
"I wish I could tell you how sorry I am.” The first words he'd spoken since his accidental infusion into the energy chamber echoed, the reverberations frightening.
"You'll have plenty of time to apologize once we're out of here.” She smiled, and DeLentus realized she was real. He stopped breathing, light-headed and confused.
"How? I thought I'd never see you again..."
"No such luck.” She came to him, running for his outstretched arms. But her path remained as fixed as his. Her exertion brought her no closer. She would follow the path she'd taken when she entered the box.
He had so many questions. His heart pounded. His knees sagged as he fought to keep standing. He wanted to wrap her in his arms, but the relentless push of entropy kept him flowing along.
She tried to smile, her eyes bright with tears. "I missed you..."
"I'm glad you came.” It sounded trite.
"A dozen years had passed before we realized you couldn't be rescued.” During that time, Maria had gone from wife and lab assistant, to project director, struggling to comprehend the intricacies of the energy chamber. Finally, admitting defeat, she resorted to the age-old adage, "If you can't beat them, join them."
"You're headed in the wrong direction.” DeLentus spoke to her back. She'd crossed his path, as powerless to alter her course as the tracer beam he followed.
"We've lost too much time, and I don't plan on having you hanging around without me while I creep through.” The humor in her voice seemed to come from all sides. "That's why I entered the chamber on its short axis."
DeLentus ran the calculations in his mind. The variance in distance meant he'd exit the chamber only days before her. "Clever girl."
"I should be. I had more than a dozen years to think outside the box."
About the Author
D. A. D'Amico wishes there were twenty more hours in every day. If there were, then maybe he'd have the time to write even a small percentage of the stories overflowing from his feverish brain.