by Mike Murphy
I’ve been visiting the Commonwealth Pub in Boston – whenever I’m on Earth – for about six years. A space jockey’s life can be pretty hectic, especially since the Oporians arrived. They took some getting used to – with their two heads, six eyes, and all – but they opened new vistas to vacation-hungry Earthers in need of my kind of transport.
I quickly spotted the man who had called me a few days ago and set up this meeting: Professor Douglas Pierce. I knew it was him because he was so out of place. He was wearing a three-piece suit, which no one does anymore, with a red tie. He was nursing a drink and glancing around. I think he was trying to spot me.
I approached him slowly and asked, “Professor Pierce?”
“Yes?” he answered, looking up from his chair.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Have a seat.” I sat down across from him, the small table between us. “Would you like a drink?” he asked me.
“No thanks,” I answered. “I never drink when I’m talking business.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued, holding up his glass reverently. “They make a gin and tonic here that is pure nectar.”
I chuckled and said, “I’ll take your word on that, Professor.”
“Please call me ‘Doug.’”
“OK, and I’m ‘Ray.’”
“I hear ‘Professor’ all day long from my students. It’s nice to hear my given name every once in a while.”
“If you don’t mind me cutting to the chase, I’ve had a long day,” I told him. “What’s on your mind?”
“I want to hire you.”
“What’s the destination?”
“The Wentek Cluster.”
“That’s pretty far away,” I said, telling him something he already knew. “Even at best speed, it’ll take about two weeks’ travel time.”
“Can you get me there?” he inquired.
“My ship can get anyone anywhere, but it won’t be cheap.”
“How much?” he asked. “Can you give me a ballpark?”
“I’d guess around. . . 30,000 new dollars.”
“Deal,” he said quickly, surprising me. “When can we leave?”
“That’s a new area of space to us Earthers,” I continued. “I’ll need to get some travel permits and check my ship’s systems. We’ll be far from any repair docks.”
“How long will that take?”
“About a week,” I said.
“So we could arrive at the Cluster. . . three weeks from now?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “but you haven’t even seen my ship.”
“No need,” he added. “Your reputation precedes you.” He reached into his shirt pocket and removed his debit card. He scanned his thumbprint on the marker, and the tiny screen flickered on. He handed it to me. “I have more than enough for the trip.”
I quickly looked at the listed balance. “I never doubted you,” I said, handing him back his card.
“Then we have a deal?”
“You’ll get me a contract?” he asked.
“I don’t use anything like that,” I informed him, holding out my hand. “This is enough for me.” He had a firm handshake. “I’ll get started on the preliminary stuff in the morning,” I went on.
“Wonderful!” he said, taking a big, celebratory sip of his gin and tonic.
“How long will you want to stay at the Cluster?”
“You’re the boss,” I confirmed. “I’ll need half the money before we leave and the other half upon our return to Earth.”
“You’ll have it.”
“Say,” I continued after a brief pause, “you’re a smart guy.”
“The University likes to think so,” he responded.
“You don’t believe what some people say about the Cluster, do you? About it being the
. . . gateway?”
“No,” Doug said. “There would have to be a Heaven for there to be a gateway from here to there.”
I was surprised. “You don’t believe in Heaven?”
“In my 55 years on this Earth, Ray,” he explained, “I haven’t seen one scrap of scientific evidence to verify its existence.” He threw back the rest of his gin and tonic. “Now,” he went on, “since we’re done discussing business, how about that drink?”
It was the Oporians who first introduced us to the Wentek Cluster. In their language, they call it “pruftar.” Roughly translated, it means “the gateway to the souls.”
Earth’s leading scientists have focused their most powerful equipment on the Cluster, with no results worth mentioning. Some religious people believe it’s an intrusion into our space of Heaven, while other people say that is ridiculous.
The licenses were secured, and Esther was ready to fly. That’s the name of my ship – after my late mother. Doug met me at Platform C of the Mayflower Space Port the following morning at 8:00 a.m. He had a suitcase with him and a satchel holding term papers to grade. “A teacher’s work is never done,” he told me.
I showed him to his quarters. He was surprised that I was the crew. He handed me his debit card. I pressed my thumb against the marker, and half of my fee was transferred to my account.
We lifted off at 8:14 a.m. The Boston skyline vanished, and the black of space enveloped us. A ship-wide diagnostic showed all systems were functioning fine.
If I suspected what was going to happen when we arrived at the Cluster and how it would still haunt me today, I would have turned Esther around and forfeited the thirty grand.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the Cluster close up,” I said. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“I’ve heard the same thing,” Doug responded.
“Esther is fully equipped for video and audio recording, you know.”
“No extra charge.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
The trip proved uneventful. Esther performed as I knew she would. We arrived at the Cluster right on schedule.
Its billing was absolutely correct. It was an incredibly beautiful sight that filled the view screen. The Cluster was composed of seven separate stars swirling about each other in a random cosmic dance. As each star moved, it left a pink trail behind it. The trails coalesced into a great pink cloud in the center. The swirling cloud reminded me of a painting, with the dancing stars serving as the picture frame. I focused Esther’s sensors on the Cluster. None of the information we received back made any sense.
“May I use the communications system?” Doug asked as we both admired the celestial show.
“Sure,” I responded. “One problem though: We’re pretty far from Earth. Any message will take a while to get there.”
“I don’t want to send a message to Earth,” my passenger said.
“I want to send a message into the Cluster.”
I paused, trying to understand, but had to ask, “Why?”
Doug got a far-away look on his face. He was remembering something, something wonderful. “Ever been married?” he asked.
“Never,” I replied. “You?”
He nodded silently. “For more than twenty years. Karen was the joy of my life.”
“About seven years ago,” he answered, trying not to choke up.
I suddenly understood his motive behind this trip. “You believe what people say about the Cluster being a gateway to Heaven, don’t you?” I asked him.
“I’m not certain.”
“At the bar, you said you didn’t believe it.”
“Would you have brought me out here if you thought I was a religious kook?” he went on. “Can we fly Esther into that thing?”
“With the crazy sensor readings we’re getting, I can’t be sure,” I said. “It could be lethal.”
“I can’t let this opportunity pass!” he exclaimed. “If there’s any truth to. . .”
“There’s no harm in trying to contact her,” I told him. “We can go from there.”
Doug bent uneasily over the comm panel. His hands were quivering. He rubbed his eyes and squinted at the controls. He knew that this moment – right now – held the answer to his prayers or the dashing of his hopes. He shakily pressed a few buttons and turned some dials to focus the comm beacon at the Cluster.
At first, all that came out of the speakers was static. Then. . .
“This is Douglas Pierce,” he broadcast, spacing his words carefully. “I’m trying to reach my wife, Karen. If anyone can hear –”
A woman’s voice came on the speaker amid the undulating static. . . a voice that sounded familiar. “Is Ray with you?” she asked.
Doug was confused to have gotten a wrong number. “Yes,” he said, “he’s. . . right here.” He looked up at me. “It’s. . . uhm. . . for you.”
I moved closer to the mike. “This is Ray Whitfield,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“You don’t recognize my voice?” she asked, sounding a little hurt.
“That’s right!” Esther replied.
“Where. . . Where are you?” I asked nervously.
“In the Cluster.”
“Then it is a gateway!” Doug exclaimed.
“It is,” Esther told him.
“Fantastic!” Doug responded.
“Mom, I. . . I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered.
“Are you well?”
“I’m OK,” I assured her, “but I’ve gotta go. I have a customer here who’s –”
“Someone’s looking for Mrs. Pierce right now,” Esther said. “Hold on a minute.”
The static rose to a crescendo and then started to slowly fade. Doug hunched over the comm panel, his face hopeful, but ashen. When a new female voice came over the speaker, tears began pouring down his cheeks. “Doug?” she anxiously asked through the static. “Doug, are you there?”
“Karen?” Doug choked out. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she said.
Doug was straining to hear her. “Is there any way to clean up the signal?” he asked me.
“I’m afraid not,” I told him. “There’s all kinds of interference coming from the Cluster.”
“Are you still there, dear?” Karen asked anxiously.
“I’m here,” Doug answered, choking up even more. “God, I miss you!”
“I miss you too, sweetheart, but we need to talk fast.”
“Why?” he asked.
“The Cluster’s intrusion into normal space is accidental,” Karen explained. “The powers that be in here are working on a way to close it off as soon as possible.”
“Why do that?” I asked.
“They say the Cluster provides proof of an afterlife and that faith can’t have proof.” The static began worsening. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to talk.”
“Karen,” Doug asked anxiously, “do you have any idea what would happen if we piloted this ship into the Cluster?”
“Doug, we –” I began.
“No,” the voice told him. “It could be very dangerous.”
“Does anyone there know?”
The static grew very loud. If she was still talking to us, Karen’s voice was overpowered by it. Doug began randomly pushing buttons on the panel. “Help me, Ray,” he pleaded. “Get her back!”
I tried a few tricks, to no avail. “No good,” I said. “It’s like the signal’s being jammed.”
“That’s it!” he agreed. “No communications. That must be the bigwigs’ first step.”
I put one hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m glad you got to talk with her again,” I told him.
“What are you saying?” Doug continued, spinning about to face me. “This isn’t the end.”
“What more is there to do?”
He paced the deck briefly. “Do you have a lifeboat on this ship?” he asked.
“Why?” I replied, not liking where the conversation was going.
“I could fly it into the Cluster.”
“We don’t know if Esther can make it,” I said. “What chance would a lifeboat have?”
“I’m not asking you to join me,” Doug went on. “If there’s a chance it might work. . .”
I remember our brief struggle, followed by the deck rising up to meet me from Doug’s impressive left hook.
I’m not sure how long I was out. When my head cleared, I frantically searched for Doug. I couldn’t find him anywhere, but the lifeboat was still in its hangar. It was then that I noticed one of the EVA suits was missing from the locker.
After a quick scan around Esther’s exterior, I found him. He was suited up and floating slowly towards the Cluster. There was no lifeline connecting him to the ship.
“Doug!” I screamed into the comm mike.
His voice came faintly through the static. “I’m here,” he said.
“Are you crazy?”
“Sorry I had to hit you, but you never would have let me do this.”
“You’ll be killed!”
“We soon find out,” he told me. “I can feel the Cluster’s gravitational pull.”
“I can still get you a lifeline.”
“Don’t you worry about me.”
The static worsened. “Doug!” I said urgently, working the comm panel.
I’m not sure he was copying me. The static drowned out parts of what he said. “I’m getting closer. . . beautiful. . . Ray. . . can’t believe. . .”
The static overpowered his comm line.
What happened next?
I can only tell you what I said at Senator Butler’s hearing a few weeks later concerning the sudden and – to him – unexplained disappearance of the Wentek Cluster: “I saw. . . I saw a hand reach out from it,” I testified. “A human hand! Also, the faintest bit of a face was visible. Doug grasped the hand, which pulled him inside. Seconds later, one by one, the stars that made up the Cluster. . . vanished. The pink trails that had gathered together in the middle of the dancing stars disappeared like water going down a drain.
“For about thirty minutes, I tried to contact Doug. No luck. I pulled up the video that had been recording as he made his spacewalk. I was able to focus on the face. The computer searched its data banks for a match. There was one: The picture that accompanied Karen Pierce’s obituary.”
I checked my bank balance yesterday. Doug had transferred the 15,000 new dollars I would have received for bringing him back to Earth into my account before we even reached the Cluster. He knew all along it would be – for him – a one-way trip.
I’ve been asked to appear on several talk shows, and I’ve turned them all down. There’s not much new I can offer. . . aside from this: A freeze frame of Doug’s face at the moment he touched his late wife’s hand.
He was smiling.
Author Bio: Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won five Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories. His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.