The Mission Control computers swarmed with static. Son of a bitch! Eli swept his hands over the desk, raking everything onto the floor—papers fluttered, his phone landed screen first, and empty cans of energy drinks rattled to the ground. Twelve drones gone.
He clasped his head between his hands and squeezed his skull. This couldn’t be happening. This just could not be happening. Painted crimson by the emergency lights, he glanced at the baker’s rack shoved against the wall. Their emptiness mocked him. He had not opened a portal to a ghost world. Spirits just didn’t exist.
And the second law of thermodynamics?
He hated thermodynamics and its blathering about energy. Energy conservation could suck his balls.
He collapsed onto the office chair, sending the squeaky wheels rolling back a few inches. Acid burned his stomach, and bile soured his mouth. And his head wouldn’t stop pounding. When his phone alarm chimed, he slid out of the chair. Dropping to his hands and knees, he brushed aside his desk debris until he found and silenced his cell.
Another hour gone, wasted, trying to make sense of the unsolvable and senseless. How many hours did that make? Seven? No, more like eight. His stupid drones hadn’t even sent back any usable data. His stomach grumbled. Rising on his knees, he yanked open the nearest desk drawer.
Instead of a box of energy bars, the inside overflowed with a mound of empty wrappers. He chucked handfuls to the floor with the rest of the garbage. Come on. There had to be one left. Just one. His fingers brushed cold plastic, and he froze. Not an energy bar but something else. Something better.
A memory jangled the back of his mind. He rooted through the remaining wrappers until he found a grip on the plastic body. He lifted his buried treasure. First, a blade poked through the layers of wrappers, then more until the fins were exposed.
Ha! His bark of laughter overrode the hiss of the nitrogen dewars. Finally, something in this hideously horrible day was going his way. He carefully slid the antique drone out of the drawer. With a quick puff of breath, he blew off the coating of dust. Would it still work?
Placing the drone on his clear desk, he fished out the handheld remote and popped off the top of the battery compartment. Empty. Easily fixed. He surged to his feet. The world tilted and dipped. He stumbled and caught himself on the edge of the desk. Whoa. Maybe he should get something to eat first.
He glanced at the mirrored surface of the open portal then the third Mission Control computer. The bar graphs showed fluctuations in power. The portal wasn’t as stable as he would have liked, but then he had kept the doorway open for nearly three hours.
Three hours without another appearance of his mother. Or his father. Or any other ghost.
Of course, he hadn’t precisely reacted well the first time, but his loved ones should at least have tried to make contact again.
Which could only mean his first instincts were correct. He hadn’t created a portal to the other side but something else. He just needed proof. He strode across the room to the baker’s rack near the lumpy futon in the corner. Removing a plastic storage bin, he tore off the lid and rifled through the contents before pulling out a handful of batteries collecting on the bottom. Returning to Mission Control, he quickly slotted them into the remote control, then the drone, and switched them both on.
The drone’s blades hummed, and its circular shape wobbled as he guided it into the air. The camera feed streamed black and white images to the small screen on the remote as he aimed for the portal. He held his breath as it plunged through the silver eye. A ripple lapped at the metal ribs, and the silvery matter tore away from the outer edge.
His gaze bounced to the Mission Control computer and checked the wormhole’s integrity—holding at eighty-five percent. Good enough. Eli chewed on his bottom lip as he waited for the drone to respond to the computer’s pings.
<Connection established. Receiving data packet. Please wait.>
“Come on. Come on.” His leg jumped from nervous energy, and the remote control shook in his tight grip. The screen blanked before asking him to wait some more. The environmental monitoring screen was black.
Please God, let him have upgraded the old drone with new equipment. As if in answer to his prayer, data appeared in the windows.
“Yes!” He didn’t dare loosen his death grip on the remote control for a victory fist pump. Orange and murky images filled the video feed as if everything on the other side was wrapped in gauze—no golden harps or angels. Maybe the other side wasn’t where the good people went.
But his mom had come from there.
Eli shrugged. He wasn’t a believer. None of his family were. Maybe that explained the Purgatory murk. He squinted at the screen, searching for landmarks, anything to see if the drone was moving forward. Shadows swayed and blew past in the distance. Visuals weren’t helpful.
He switched his attention to the sensor data. Ozone and carbon monoxide readings were off the charts. Temperatures pegged at over one hundred thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Oxygen was barely above hypoxic levels. Good thing the dead didn’t need to breathe. Good thing he didn’t plan to visit his folks on the other side. Or did he? He pushed the drone forward, noting the presence of heavy metals in the air, such as lead and trace amounts of mercury.
Jesus. He’d need an oxygen mask and a decontamination shower if his drones failed and he had to step across the threshold. Even then, he couldn’t survive for long.
A humanoid shape solidified in the murk. He twisted the controls to follow it. The image stopped. A red warning flared on the screen.
“Now what!” He couldn’t lose this drone. He just couldn’t. The image tilted.
Something flashed across the screen and then disappeared.
<Malfunction. Image lost. Connection lost.>
“God fucking dammit!” He hurled the controller across the room.
It hit the concrete floor and shattered—bits of plastic scattering in all directions. The mirrored surface of the portal shimmered before tearing away from the circular ribs and pouring back into the center in a swirling mass. A silver sphere hovered in the center before blinking out. The dewars bracketing the portal puffed a few clouds of super cold air before subsiding into silence.
That was that. Bile soured his tongue, but he swallowed down the bitter taste of failure and strode across the room. “The whole thing is pointless.”
He slammed open the door to the lobby. Four more steps carried him across the exit. Two alarms beeped, reminding him his departure hadn’t followed proper procedures.
He was out of flying fucks to give. A cool breeze swirled around him and swept a crumpled envelope and bits of a Styrofoam cup across the weed-infested parking lot. Although Godmother had seemed pleased, today had been a total waste of time.
If it really was a portal to the other side, why had no one else bothered coming through? He stabbed the key into the lock of his car door. After a twist of the wrist, he yanked open the door and slid behind the wheel. He slapped it with enough force his palms tingled and pain rocketed up his arm. A drop of blood smeared in the steering wheel cover.
He turned over his hand and inspected his palm. The cut his mother’s brooch caused split open again. His head ached. But how could she have the brooch at all? Sure she had worn it at her viewing, but he had removed it before her burial as she had instructed in her will.
Leaning over, he opened the glove compartment and lifted the small box holding his handgun to grab the brown bag underneath. Paper crinkled as he pulled it out and opened the rolled-down edge. Purple velvet caught the late afternoon sunshine as he pulled out the bag inside. A quick flick of his wrist later, and the brooch filled his palm. The bent corner matched the cut on his flesh from the last encounter.
The rules of the dead world must not be the same as those in this world. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. This world kind of sucked. Maybe on the other side, a person only had to think of something, for it to come true.
Imagine a world without disappointing anyone. That would definitely be his idea of heaven. Heaven. He shook his head, returned the brooch to its bag and stuffed them both in his glove box before slamming the door shut.
What was he thinking? With the atmosphere on the other side, he couldn’t live. No one alive could. He needed to find another planet in this universe. Then he’d have kept his promise to his parents, and they would be proud.
He jammed the key into the ignition and twisted viciously. The engine coughed to life. The radio blasted on.
“—The senator’s wife was driving south on Interstate Seventeen when she collided headfirst with a wrong-way driver. She was pronounced—”
He had enough of death. Eli poked the power button. His ears rang with the banging of his blood in his veins. Caffeine made his palms sweat and his heart race. Throwing the car in gear, he pulled out of the parking lot. Food first. Home. Then sleep. Tomorrow, he’d tackle the problem again.
Tomorrow, he’d search for a world he didn’t have to die to get into.