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“Made some changes, have you? A little something to make the gawkers more comfortable?”
Ben stood at the back of the tour group, out of place amongst the gaggle of well-dressed men and women, financiers and producers for the weekend’s anniversary spectacular. Why anyone would want to celebrate ten years of the Terminus he didn’t know, but they had gone to great expense renovating for the occasion. Two entire floors of the tower had been collapsed into one, the walls removed and sloping rows of chairs installed, converting the entire space into a high end amphitheater. The machine at the center was exposed, the tall glass tube stretching from floor to ceiling and ringed on all sides by a raised platform. Currently, the glass was dark and shielded, the machine mercifully switched off, but soon enough the dead would come, appearing inside like fossils trapped in amber. Unlike the other viewing chambers in the tower, here they would be on display to an audience of nearly four thousand living souls, not to mention the millions watching at home. Worst of all, the whole thing had been Ben’s idea.
The man who had spoken was at the head of the crowd, ignoring the chattering of the suits behind him. As Ben watched, he paced closer to the newly erected stage, casting a wary glance at the glass tube of the Terminus at its center. “Never did like playing in the round. No matter how you go about it, someone’s always staring at your ass.”
Ben suppressed a smile. They’d never met before, but the man was unavoidably familiar. He was over fifty, wiry, and shorter than Ben had expected, with a slick coif of dark hair and a neat salt-and-pepper goatee. His sport coat was a garish purple, open over a dark t-shirt and jeans, with a mismatched assortment of silver jewelry clustered at his neck and wrists. Up close, he looked even older. Tired, too.
“Mr. Sullivan?” Ben ventured closer as the group of producers and investors continued to chatter amongst themselves. He’d never been much of a fan of Legend, but the notoriety of the band’s last living member preceded him. “If you have any questions….”
“What are you, then?” Sullivan turned and looked him over appraisingly, taking in Ben’s slouched demeanor and faded t-shirt. He grinned. “Tech support?”
“More or less, yeah.”
“So they’ll be in the box? The boys.” The old man turned his attention back to the stage. “They’re dialed in from the afterlife, while I’m out here, on this side of the glass.”
“Yes. You’ve used the Terminus before?”
“Oh, aye. Not here, though. Singapore. A few years back.” He trailed off, remembering. “You know, the audio mix has got to be quite tricky. Never been much for harmonizing, our world and theirs. I’m wondering what you lot are doing to compensate.”
Behind them, someone cleared their throat. The tour group was moving on, the Terminus’ Chief of Security, Soliz, giving Ben a particularly pointed look. The auditorium’s state-of-the architecture was impressive, but the inner workings of the machine itself, the mixer and control panel buried in the bowels of the tower, was Ben’s arena. Tech support indeed.
With an apologetic shrug for the reminiscing rock star, Ben joined the suits filing out into the hall. He couldn’t help glancing around as the group made its way into the elevators, looking for the woman that he’d met that morning. They hadn’t exchanged more than a handful of words, but the harried “afterlife planner” seemed like she wanted to be here even less than Ben himself. She’d looked familiar somehow, too.
By the time the others piled into the elevator, there was no sign of her. Sullivan squeezed in last, watching as Ben swiped his access card and punched the button that would take them into the Terminus’ restricted basement levels.
As they descended, Soliz spoke up from the back of the car. “We’ve arranged accommodations for you on the seventieth floor, Mr. Sullivan.”
“Perhaps Mister Sullivan would be more comfortable in a hotel,” one of the label reps countered.
“I assure you that the accommodations in our private suites will more than meet Mister Sullivan’s needs.”
“We would ask that this fact be kept strictly confidential. Terminus security has lived up to its reputation so far, but considering the media circus surrounding Mr. Sullivan's arrival…"
"Suh-lee. Is no one fucking listening?"
Ben did stop listening after that. They were crowded in behind him – handlers and promoters and Terminus executives, the head of security and the senior engineer. Ben felt a pang of sympathy for Sullivan trapped between them, but an old has-been like him was probably used to it.
The ride lasted only three floors, down to a sublevel of the basement that most people never even realized was there. Or maybe they didn't want to. Because beneath the building was the reactor, a mirror image of the one rising two stories above the roof. Terminus One was actually eighty-seven stories tall and three deep. But no one ever talked about that. The middle, that was where the magic happened.
Stepping out of the elevator, Ben waited for the herd to reform. Ben led the way, winding down through the bowels of the building. Soon they’d pass beneath the theater with its single, massive Terminus console that would be able to display all three of the band’s deceased members at the same time. Few people really understood the implications of this new twist on the technology.
But Ben was one of them. He’d designed it, after all.
The room at the end of the hall had been his workspace for almost a year now. It wasn't much to look at, but most of these people had seen it before and knew enough not to complain about the mess. What was important was the massive console waiting at the far end. Deep beneath the stage, it combined the latest in Terminus tech with the finest soundboard that money could buy. He'd never worked on a rig so complex before, but he'd had plenty of time to get a feel for it and could theoretically run the whole show with a single computer and a minimal team.
Other than that, the walls were concrete, the ceiling was low, and the chairs were those same pieces of uncomfortable plastic found in all the rooms upstairs. He'd cleaned up a bit, though--even put up an old Legend poster at the last minute.
Sullivan scowled at it before collapsing onto the old couch that Ben had pushed into one corner. One of the Terminus reps was already walking the rest of the visitors through the basic workings of the console – "capable of multiple summons at once!" – but that was okay. They hadn't exactly hired Ben for his people skills.
He sank down on the couch next to Sullivan, who rolled his head toward him, asking, "Got a smoke?"
"There's no smoking in the building."
Sullivan made a show of pressing his face into the cushions and sniffing. "But you do it anyway. Don't worry, it's not like they can say no." He smirked. “Heard some brainiac cooked all this up. I’m guessing that’s you, yeah?”
Ben nodded, pulling out his pack of cigarettes and handing it over. Sullivan had his own light.
"You have a name, Brainiac?"
"Nice to meet you, Ben Ward." Crossing his legs, he squinted in the direction of the still-babbling crowd. "In the interest of preserving the delicate balance of our professional relationship, I am going to have to ask that you call me Sully."
"Not a problem."
Sully took a drag off his cigarette and handed back the pack. After a moment's hesitation, Ben took one for himself and let the older man light it.
"Good man. Nothing like asserting your dominance over the elements to settle the nerves."
Sully gestured with his cigarette, making a swirl of the smoke. "Fire. No greater proof that we've conquered it. Our ancestors feared the stuff and yet here we are, having a chat and filling our lungs with it. We've taken danger and stuck it in between our lips, just for the pleasure of it. Truly a testament to the evolution of mankind, I'd say."
Ben didn't know what to say to that. He studied the man from the corner of his eye, noting that, despite the wrinkles and the graying hair, there was still a youthful energy there, particularly around the eyes. Sully seemed to be watching everything, counting the minutes, probably thinking about a dozen other things as well. Ben had heard the stories, of course – the drinking, the drugs, the women, more drugs. Hell, the guy had been nearly comatose when his bandmates went up in a ball of flame.
Still, he was clearly more intelligent than he let on. Enough to want to be anywhere but here, at least. They had that in common.
“So, Ben. Dear friend. Who were you looking for upstairs?”
“At the lifts. Not something I expected to see.” His eyes swept upward, taking in the tower above. “Not here.”
Ben shook his head, still not following, and Sullivan leaned close conspiratorially.
“Hope. Looking for a girl, maybe? Or a boy. You could say I know eager when I see it.”
Ben chuckled. “Yeah, well. Doesn’t matter. She wasn’t there.”
“Ah, passing ships, then.” Sully sat back with a shrug. Fishing in his jacket, he produced a Terminus brochure, the kind they handed out in the lobby upstairs. He flipped through it idly. “Is it really as simple as they make it sound, this modern sort of blood magic?”
“Not in the least. It’s--” Glancing over, Ben gaped. “Shit. That’s her.”
“Stop, there.” He tapped the open page of Sullivan’s brochure. “That… eesh, that afterlife planning ad.”
Legacy Specialists Ltd., one of the firms with offices upstairs. Ben recognized the name, but it didn’t make the idea of putting aside money for your death any less unsettling. The woman in the ad smiled invitingly, dazzlingly bright in her white suit, her hand stretched forward. It was a far cry from the haunted expression she had worn in the elevator, but it was definitely the same woman.
“Your Lady of the Lift? Does she have a name?”
Ben leaned closer to read the tiny text of the ad. “Doesn’t say.”
“Cute. The Heavenly accountant bit’s a tad overdone, but cute. And you know where she works, at least. Making sure those corpses get their money’s worth. And you’re here to make me sound good.” Winking, Sully gestured with his cigarette. “And I’d better sound good.”
"I'll try. The bass will have to be diffused to match the sound quality from the other side, but I think I've found the balance."
Sully rolled his eyes. "I played keys, too, you know. The opening lines of 'Nadine?'" He hummed a few familiar notes.
"I did know that. And you wrote that one, right?"
He grinned. "See? Knew I liked you. Now, that was a girl worth writing a song about. Might have gotten a whole album if things had worked out. But passing ships, you know? Like your girl. Sometimes it's better that way."
"Yeah, maybe." Ben stubbed his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe and flicked it into the nearby garbage can.
"Come out with me tonight. From the look of this place, you don't get out much. Maybe we'll find you a Nadine of your own."
Ben shook his head. "Nice try. Didn't I hear Soliz say that you're not supposed to leave the building?"
"Jowly fellow? Looks like a gorilla shagged a bulldog?" Sully didn't bother to lower his voice, but no one seemed to notice.
Ben hid a smile. "And the head of Terminus security. I doubt he'd think it's a good idea." He tucked a loose hair behind his ear and gave the old man a sideways glance. "And I do go out. I do alright, actually."
Sully nodded appraisingly. "Sure, good-looking guy, tall, good job, not big into bullshit. I can see that. And you've got something a little dark in you, don't you? Something exotic for the ladies? Italian, maybe?"
"Man of mystery. Now we're talking."
Ben looked toward the console, where the label rep had plugged in a guitar and was running a sound demo with a soul on the other side. The spirit’s name was Joey and he had roadied for the Legend before their crash. Since he'd been killed along with them, the band had insisted that he be involved and that his family be well-paid for the gig. It was one of the things that had made Ben start to suspect that they were kind of okay guys.
He leaned closer to Sully. "I hate to break it to you, but I really don't think you're getting out. I mean, for your own safety—"
"Et tu, Brainiac? It's all just a polite way of saying they don't trust me." His cigarette butt followed Ben's into the trash. "I don't suppose there's a liquor store in the building?"
"Nope. And don't you have to, you know…?"
"Catch up with my mates? All the more reason to get well and truly pissed."
Ben watched him carefully. “You said you’d tried it before? Who did you--? I mean, did you summon… them?”
“What, the great Legend?” Sully barked a laugh and waggled his fingers theatrically. “Once. I was in Singapore for-- well, best not to talk about that. But I got it into my head that I needed to look up Shane. Unfinished business. And barbiturates, I think.” He scratched at his chin. “It wasn’t easy. Or cheap. But Shane’s kid is a particularly fiendish little bastard when it comes to cashing in on the family bloodline. I was able to get his keycard from a local collectibles dealer. I swear, the poor guy must get summoned more than Jesus.
"I don't think Jesus—"
"Right. Anyway, we talked for a while. I told him to pass on a message to Chester and Alan, should be come across them in the great beyond."
"Fuck them." He chuckled, remembering. "Fuck the lot of 'em. Why did they have to go and die? I was a mess, real tearful shit. Needless to say, I didn't try it again."
Ben arched a brow. "You don't think that's going to be a problem?"
"For the show? Nah." Sully waved a dismissive hand. "I've been thinking about it. What do the dead care, really? What are our words to them? Oh sure, it's different when it goes the other way. Everything they say sounds like wisdom. Because they're dead. And because we want it to. But we don't even know where they exist when they're not right in front of us, whether they're off drifting in some vast eternity. And if that's the case, it's got to be more interesting than us. Either way, they know me. They know what I'm like when I'm fucked. And maybe they deserve to feel a little guilty."
"About dying in a plane crash?"
Sully gave him a scornful look. "That was just the end of it. But I'll not say another word about it, not without something a little stronger than nicotine."
"Mr. Sullivan?" The shade behind that glass was being lowered and the suits had suddenly remembered they were there. This time, Sully didn't bother to correct them. "If you're ready?"
With a lazy grin for Ben, he put his hands on his knees and pushed slowly to his feet. One of the men was holding open a briefcase chained to his wrist and containing a nested security box. Joey the Roadie's keycard was always here, but those Ben had never gotten to use without supervision. Shane Denning, Chester Grey and Alan Rainewood were a different class of dead.
"Might as well." Sully smiled up at the man with the briefcase. "But give a guy some privacy, yeah?"
"Someone will need to operate the console."
"Young Ben here can help me. You can wait outside with your locks and your codes. And not to worry, I won’t jeopardize your precious production, or my paycheck."
Sully's back was to Ben, but something in his expression must have made the man think better about arguing. He untangled himself from the briefcase and set it on the console. "Right outside."
Sully raised a hand. "On my honor as a greedy bastard."