Monday, May 4, 2009

Beyond the Stars (Part 2 of 2)

The machine stood in a disused wheat field on Jack’s property. The small crowd that stood a respectful distance away from the apparatus consisted mainly of Jack’s long-time friends and rivals, with a smattering of representatives from the press. Their mood ranged from skepticism to excited anticipation, and the crowd became hushed as Jack and Angus went through their final safety inspections.

Jack touched Angus on the arm. “Old friend, I appreciate your concern. You have been my one constant throughout this, and, by rights, you should be with me on this voyage. The power consumption –”

Angus interrupted. “I know, Jack.” It came out “nooo.” “I just think you should let someone else take the risk this time.”

“I can’t do that. You know me well enough to understand that. I need to know what is out there, beyond the stars.” He pulled on his airtight suit and oxygen system, and scanned the instrument panel, ensuring that everything was working. He toggled the main power switch and listened to the high-pitched whine as the generators came to full power. Electricity arced across him, bathing him in an eerie blue light. He ensured that the destination dials were in the correct position, gave a last wave to Angus, and touched the large red button that closed the circuit.

* * *

In a trice, he was back where he started. It happened so quickly that almost no one registered that the device had vanished for a moment. The bewildered crowd fell hushed, thinking something was wrong, that the trip had not occurred. From previous experience with the device, Angus knew that the travel was nearly instantaneous, regardless of distance. He could observe that the device itself had accumulated a patina of dust the likes of which he had never seen. Angus hastened to help Jack unfasten the helmet and air tanks.

“How did ye fare?” Angus asked as he unbolted the helmet. But then he looked into Jack’s eyes and saw the haunted look residing there. “What did ye encounter.”

Jack slowly turned his head to look at his friend. He trembled slightly. “Nothing,” he whispered. “Nothing is out there. There is no God, only emptiness.” He then said nothing more, and walked slowly away from the apparatus. The crowd murmured its displeasure, and Angus hastened to soothe those who felt cheated.

Jack stayed in bed for three days, eating and drinking nothing. The housekeeper attempted to give him water to drink, and some but not much made its way down his throat. Otherwise, he remained supine, staring vacantly at an invisible point in the distance. Angus sent word to Jack’s mother, now in her seventies and feeble, that he had given up the will to live, and she should prepare for the worst.

On the third day, he rose and dressed. The housekeeper pleaded with him to eat and drink something, but he shook her off and made his way slowly to the wheat field where the Tesla device still stood. Methodically, he took apart the machine, occasionally swaying as he became lightheaded from his starvation. Once he fell to the ground before regaining his feet, but he disabled every control, every circuit, everything that would give an engineer a clue as to how to recreate the machine. He took these parts back to the house with him, leaving a steel hulk in the wheat field.

He destroyed the parts, then burned his papers. Only then did he sink to his knees and allow the housekeeper to bring him bread and butter, and a goblet of water. He returned to his bedroom, undressed, and went back to bed.

The next day he rose as usual, shaved, and dressed with care. Angus came to visit, but Jack dismissed him, ignoring the hurt look in his friend’s eyes. He dismissed the housekeeper and called his solicitor to sell the large house, the laboratory, and the property, immediately and as-is. He drove his Austin Steamer to Cape Wrath, scarcely stopping for food or fuel, and hired a house on the small beach.

The years came and went. He slept through most days, and when the sun sank low he would rise and sit on the beach. He would watch the stars, alone in his thoughts. When it rained, or when it was very cold, he sat inside and looked out the window. On occasion, a friend would stop by with news of the news from New Babbage, where Angus now worked with a team attempting to develop a rocket that would reach Jupiter. Jack listened politely, then exchanged some small talk with his informant, before returning to his silent vigil. He preferred night to day because the world was quieter then, with fewer tourists on the beach, fewer locals wanting to pass the time with him, fewer automobiles bouncing over the cobblestone streets. The night also allowed him to see the occasional spaceship, headed toward the Moon colony or, more rarely, to Mars. When he saw the telltale flame of a spaceship low in the sky, having been launched from Babbage, he smiled a little, remembering his youthful enthusiasms.

At twilight one September day, shortly after Jack had taken up his post for the evening, he saw a woman walking along the beach, with a young boy in tow, scuffing the sand as he reluctantly followed his mother back home. Periodically, the boy would look up at the sky and watch the stars start to emerge from their daily hibernation. His mother urged the boy to keep up, and he did for a short while, then fell back again. As she passed near Jack, he could hear her say, “Honestly, Evan, I don’t know what I’m to do with you. Your head is always in the clouds.”

He replied in a defiant, child’s voice, “I’m going to the stars and past them, Mummy. You’ll see.”

Jack smiled to himself, and returned his attention back to the sky.

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