Much as I'd like to speed through this "one last pass" and rush Terminus to production, the rewrite process is yielding improvements. Part of me feels like I'm reinventing the wheel, even in returning to the original concept. I'm certainly not the same person that I was when I started writing this story, but I feel like I have a better handle on what it's going to take to elevate this into a solid piece of fiction. No story is ever truly finished. But before I let it go, I'm gonna make it sing.
The prologue is already better than it was and looking at them side-by-side has done wonders for reaffirming my inspiration. Time to burn some more red ink and get it done.
An old man dozed at the back of the train. His eyes were hooded, his coat well made but twenty years out of style, his spindly fingers resting on his knees. A weathered knit cap hung there, swaying limply against his leg as the train rattled on. Maybe he'd worried it between those fingers once, on another ride as a younger man. Maybe he'd been nervous, excited, and terrified as all the rest of them. But the hat hung forgotten now, his gaze drifting unseeing past the other passengers as he nodded off again.
Most of the other people on the 9 a.m. southbound were managing to keep their eyes open, buzzed on coffee and pills and the glare of the half dozen news screens mounted around the car. The nearest blinked from a story about the London riots to the familiar chorus of Legend's "Pinned on Me."
"The concert of the century, a reunion no one thought possible.…" Some of the passengers looked up at that, though the feeds had been about little else for weeks.
"Thirty years to the day since their final performance, Legend will stand before fans once again. Attendance is expected to break sixty-five thousand, with simulcasts broadcasting around the globe. News20 will, of course, be standing by at newly-constructed Catherine Verena Memorial Concert Hall to bring you up-to-the-minute updates on the rumored 3.2 billion dollar production."
Old concert footage gave way to the image of a reporter standing before a familiar building, the pale spire rising up and out of sight behind him. “As we know, three of the band’s four members tragically lost their lives and were mourned the world over, but this event will see the return of the original line-up in its entirety. In just three night’s time, the living and the dead will raise their voices together.” He smiled placidly at the camera. “I don't know about you, my friends… but I'd say we're truly living in an age of legends."
Across the aisle, Riley mouthed the words along with him and stifled a groan. They'd been running the same promo all week and she didn't remember it being funny the first time either.
As she shifted her briefcase and adjusted her grip on the handrail, the screens went back to recounting stock prices. The old man was awake for the moment, but if he'd noticed her watching him, he gave no sign. Most of the people on the train were like her – dressed for work, headsets in their ears and comms in their palms, too busy to notice someone like him. But once you did notice them, you could never really stop.
They were always there, the ones they called the "living dead." The old man still drew breath, sure, still managed to make his way downtown, but the city had taken everything else. Maybe it had been a wife, a child. He'd been rich once; he'd have to have been. But maybe he couldn't afford the rent anymore. Maybe he'd had to find an apartment in the outlying areas, ration whatever money he had left for a weekly visit and a pass for the morning train. He wasn't the first to give up everything. She wondered how long it had been.
As the train sped beneath the Memorial 108, his chin sank to his chest once more. Everything was a memorial these days – named highways and commemorative ramps, a plaque on every corner. It was too much to remember them all and, in the case of overpasses and interchanges, people had simply gone back to calling them by their mile markers. It defeated the purpose, really, but the dead must have their due.
Overhead, the screens changed again, blaring snatches of another familiar song. Riley didn't know the name of this one, but she was sure her mother would. The feed was new, live, a shaky shot of one of Keane International's private runways. Crowds crowded and flashbulbs flashed as a man in a purple sport coat and oversized dark glasses was hurried to a waiting limousine. He reminded her of everything else in the city, fine but faded, a face that was familiar but somehow wrong. That stiff grin showed too many well-worn lines and the slick coif of dyed black hair made no attempt to match the silver of his goatee.
"…A warm reception for Legend bassist Kirk Sullivan, the band’s sole surviving member," the reporter was saying.
As if on cue, Sullivan leaned through the crowd toward the camera and gave a cheeky salute. The angle quickly pulled back, catching his thin-lipped grimace as his escorts closed in again and hurried him into the waiting car.
The man behind Riley gave a derisive snort. Sullivan had been in rehab or something when the accident had happened.
Shadows flickered across the car as the train sped beneath the final loops of the Memorial 104. The city was springing up around them now, but Riley wasn't looking out the windows. She always put that off as long as possible. Some of the people in the car would be going other places, sure, but none of those office buildings or apartment blocks would be there if it wasn't for the tower looming above the skyline, the hole in the world that had built an entire city around itself.
Instead, she watched the old man wipe the sleep from his eyes, coming awake by old instinct. She wondered about who he had lost and what he'd been like when they were still alive, what they had been like when they were happy. She even wondered about Kirk Sullivan and what he'd felt when he heard about the plane crash that had killed his bandmates and should have killed him, wondered what he was feeling now.
Because this was Bridge City, Terminus One, the place where it had all started. It was the wonder of the world – if you didn't count the copies that had sprung up in New York and Tokyo, with London opening in the fall. Most people would say that Riley was lucky to be a part of it, even if she was just here to settle the affairs of those who had passed on. Hell, maybe the reporter had been right. This was a place where a man could spend the afternoon with his dead wife, where an aging rock star could relive his glory days with bandmates who were thirty years dead. This was Bridge City, home of the bridge to the afterlife.
As the train slid into the station and the doors hissed open, Riley shook her head. Trying to play the philosopher while living in the city was a quick way to lose your mind. It had happened to a co-worker. Besides, she had an appointment to keep. Mrs. Pembrooke had lectured her on punctuality while she was still alive. Riley suspected pointing out that the old woman now had all the time in the world would only piss her off.
The old man dozed in the shadow of the angels. At this hour of the morning, the statues provided ample shade, their stone wings stretching toward the desert sun. Already the garden was filling with pilgrims and tourists, its mismatched religious iconography thronging with the faithful, the curious, and those who simply had nowhere else to be. The old man was one of the latter, Riley decided.
She had seen him here before, a familiar face without a name, hunched on a bench not far from where she sat sipping her coffee. Like so many of them, he had dressed for the occasion and carefully combed his thinning hair, but his suit was stained and faded, the jacket hanging loose around him like a shawl. He was here every morning, clinging to the same vain hope, a stalwart, silent island in the chaos of the crowd. Others shouted, pleaded, pressed as close to the building’s entrance as they could before security ran them off. Many, though, had become like the old man, beggars who had lost the strength to raise their eyes to passersby, who settled for merely being in the vicinity of the miraculous.
The tower rose above them all, a looming presence in modern lines of glass and steel. Its construction had been a cooperative effort, much like the city itself, springing up where a decade ago there had been only dust and sand. That, and a lonely outpost where a grieving professor had led his team in achieving the impossible. Here, the world had changed. Here, mankind had conquered death itself.
They called it the Terminus. The name had come to encompass both the tower and the machine at its heart, a brilliant core of energy stretching toward the sky, a rift between the worlds of the living and the dead. At least, that’s how the movies depicted it. Despite her years working in the tower, Riley had never seen the core. No one had. But she knew the basics, the keystrokes required to summon a departed soul from the other side and allow them to manifest within the machine, to speak once more with the family and friends that they had left behind. For most, such a reunion was worth any price, more than enough to keep facilitators like her in business. Doctor Vanth’s initial miracle had been synthesized and expanded, communion with the dead taken from holy men and placed in the hands of technicians and brokers.
Riley much preferred the chaos outside, the noise of the garden that sprawled around the tower’s circular drive. While the building itself was sterile, deliberately neutral, the entryway was a jumbled collection of statues and totems, plinths and pillars, symbols of faith from every corner of the world. Smaller offerings clustered at their feet – candles and photographs, flowers and small toys, tokens of remembrance left by those unable to afford the fee required to enter the tower proper. It was meant to be a place for prayer, for quiet reflection, but the crowds were thick here, day or night.
She took her coffee here most mornings, sitting amongst the stony saints and prophets, studying the fading photographs of those who would be remembered. The living, she watched most of all. Riley had become adept at spotting the wonder and terror of first time visitors, had come to know regulars by face if not by name. Her view of the old man was interrupted by a group of yellow-robed monks as they wound their way through the garden’s paths, dancing to the rhythm of their drums. Some of the onlookers were swept up with them, joining hands to pull others from their benches. She hid a smile in her cup. This was the way it could have been, should have been.
The crowds were even thicker today, electrified by the upcoming anniversary celebration. It had been nearly ten years since the first Terminus had opened its doors. The technology had since been replicated in New York and Tokyo, with the London Terminus set to open in the fall, but this had been the first. A few ramshackle buildings in the Arizona desert had become a pilgrim’s encampment when Malcolm Vanth and his team had first shared news of their discovery. Riley had been only a child, but she remembered the images on the news feeds; it had looked like an overgrown tailgate party, full of press vans and church tents and military barricades. From there, the city had put down roots. Once the discovery was vetted, funding poured in, financiers snapping up land and building an oasis that became the focus of the world. The tower at its center outpaced it all, growing taller as the machine inside was expanded, adding floor after floor of terminals where the living could dial up the dead. Even with the replicated facilities around the globe, there was no shortage of demand. But it had all started here, in Bridge City, home of the first bridge between the living and the dead.
The old man had nodded off again, teetering on his memorial bench. He still drew breath, still managed to make his way downtown, but it was clear that the city had taken everything else. Maybe it had been a wife, a child. For the chance to see them again, he had left his life behind and relocated, rationed whatever money he had left for a weekly visit and a pass for the morning bus. He wasn't the first to give up everything. Riley wondered how long it had been.
A commotion in the drive startled him awake. Riley flushed, caught in her voyeuristic speculation, but the old man’s eyes passed through her. A dark town car was making its way toward the tower, causing a surge in the crowd waiting outside the doors. The anniversary celebration was drawing its share of high profile guests from both the living and the dead, with a slate of appearances and even a concert planned for the night of the anniversary itself. It promised to be one hell of a publicity stunt, considering most of the band had died in a plane crash thirty years ago.
As the car pulled to a stop, the cameras crowded forward, nearly obscuring the man in the purple sport coat who was rushed toward the Terminus doors. Flipping open her phone, Riley pulled up a live news feed with a closer angle. Though his bandmates had died before her time, she recognized Kirk Sullivan, Legend’s bassist and least remarkable member, who had missed the fateful flight. He reminded her of everything else in the city, fine but faded, a face that was familiar but somehow wrong. That stiff grin showed too many well-worn lines and the slick coif of dyed black hair made no attempt to match the silver of his goatee. As if on cue, Sullivan leaned through the crowd toward the camera and gave a cheeky salute. The angle quickly pulled back, catching his thin-lipped grimace as his escorts closed in again and hurried him inside.
Tucking her phone away, Riley watched the old man wipe the sleep from his eyes and rise unsteadily from his bench. She wondered about who he had lost, what they had been like when they were both alive and happy. She wondered about Sullivan and what he'd felt when he heard about the rash that had killed his bandmates and should have killed him, wondered what he was feeling now. Here, lovers could be reunited. Here, the aged could relive their glory days with friends long dead. Most people would say that Riley was lucky to be a part of it, even if she was just here to settle the affairs of those who had passed on.
Crumpling her cup, she tossed it in a nearby garbage bin. Even that had its share of stone filigree, a gleaming memorial placard bolted to the front. The dead must have their due. Besides, she had stalled long enough. She had an appointment to keep. Mrs. Pembrooke had been fond of lecturing her on punctuality while she was still alive. Given her new circumstances, the old woman had all the time in the world, but Riley suspected pointing that out would only piss her off.
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