He was known to disconnect from the world on occasion. One minute, he’d be in the grocery store, leaning over to smell the flowers, and the next he’d be floating alongside the Orion Nebula, not able to breathe, swimming his arms in empty space but not going anywhere. He’d be out there just until he thought he’d pass out from lack of oxygen, and then he’d blink and be back wherever he was before the episode started, gasping for breath but alive. Looking for a diagnosis was a farce. Half of the MDs he saw pegged him as a drug addict, while the other half wanted to have him admitted. Some suggested narcolepsy with vivid dreams, but these weren’t dreams. He could feel the coldness of space biting at his fingers, the sting in his eyes when he looked at the bright light of the stars unencumbered by an atmosphere to shield out the harmful rays. He could feel the pressure in his head and chest, hear the absolute silence of the void.
He never knew when it would happen. It didn’t seem to be triggered by any specific smells or sounds or sights. It could happen when he was happy or sad or angry. He made detailed logs of his episodes and shared them with the MDs who actually stuck with him, but it got him nowhere.
He never knew where it would take him, either. He’d witnessed the creation of stars, flown over alien planets he’d never before seen, each of them dotted with lights like you’d see in a photo of Earth from space at night. Gaseous clouds of every color undulated past. Hunks of rock of unbelievable size hurtled past, so massive that they seemed to be lazily sliding past him. Satellites of a construction he’d never before seen flew past, sometimes stopped in place as if to observe him, then continued on their way. Every time, he’d hold his breath as long as he could and try to take in as much as possible before going back. If he was in public, he’d inevitably find himself surrounded by unfamiliar faces, concerned faces that were relieved to see him regain consciousness. That was better than waking up in an ambulance or hospital room, because at least then he wouldn’t be charged for the ride and visit.
He took whatever he had with him. More than a few times, he found himself aimlessly pushing a shopping cart through the yawning abyss of space, his groceries slowly floating away from him. When he’d wake up, everything would be back in its place. Then, one day, he got an idea. He was surprised it hadn’t struck him before.
He’d wear a breathing mask and oxygen tank.
He went to a scuba shop and bought the best mask and biggest tank he could find. He called a week off work and wore the mask and tank 24/7. He’d basically never gone a week without an episode before, so all he’d have to do was wait. He also kept a fire extinguisher handy at all times so that he’d have something to propel himself with in space. He spent as much time as he could in bed to ensure that he wouldn’t fall and get hurt if an episode hit. He was ready.
And then it happened.
He found himself hovering above an alien nebula he’d never seen before, each twinkling pinprick within it a star, some of them perhaps suns for habitable planets. He had to remind himself that he wasn’t technically above the nebula, that there was no “above” in space. Some concepts are hard to shake off.
He got to work right away. His mask secure, he turned on the oxygen and was amazed to find that he could breathe. All these years, all these episodes, and he’d always been holding his breath. When that was done, he sprayed a bit of the fire extinguisher by his side, just enough to make him spin. He needed to see where his destination would be.
There were massive clusters of stars everywhere, uncountable. But then there, in the center of it all, there were no stars. There was nothing at all. A perfect circle of nothingness stared back at him, whether taunting or beckoning he couldn’t tell. An unnamable dread consumed him, a fear of something he did not and could not understand. A black hole.
He fought against its pull at first, the different vestigial parts of his brain fighting against this threat, trying to liken it to an apex predator in the wild but having no clear strategy on how to outrun something so massive that it can slow down time.
He’d read all about time dilation. The frequent, unplanned, and initially unwanted trips to space had developed in him an interest in the infinite. Theoretically, if one were to be pulled into a black hole and somehow survive, time would slow down to such a degree relative to them that it would seem like they were being pulled in for millennia. There were many theories on what would happen once an object or person was entirely pulled in, but no one knew for sure.
Now he would.
He pointed the fire extinguisher behind him and propelled himself forward, toward the black hole. He saw this not as an end, but a new beginning. A gateway to something else. A path leading to a world he had no concept of. He flew, and was pulled, and carried. He watched as the light went in along with him.