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The child was restless, kicking her heels against the sofa where she sat wide-eyed and waiting. According to the file, she would be five years old tomorrow, too young to understand but aware enough to sense the nervous apprehension in the room, the vague thrumming in the walls.
The energy field at the tower’s core was powerful enough to cause a constant, if barely perceptible hum, like insects trapped in a jar. Riley was no physicist but, as she understood it, the power sources at opposite ends of the building kept a running current cycling between them, containing charged particles that vibrated at a higher frequency than the rest of the living world. The dead could manipulate these particles to give themselves physical form, to speak to those that they had left behind. Some sensitives and mediums took it a step further, claiming that the core represented a “thinness of the veil,” that Malcolm Vanth and his team had punctured reality, allowing the worlds of the living and the dead to bleed together. Such claims were usually dismissed as crackpot theories, but Riley had never been entirely comfortable inside the Terminus, could never quite shake the itching between her shoulder blades.
She set down the coffee that she had been serving to the older guests and crossed the room to kneel in front of the girl.
“Hi there. Allison, right?” She tried a smile. “I’ll tell you a secret, Allison. I don’t like it here, either.”
The child blinked at that. She was the youngest granddaughter of Riley’s client, the late Sharon Pembrooke, summoned here with woman’s two grown sons to welcome her back to the world. The girl was too young to understand what would happen at the Terminus, but the stipulations of the old woman’s contract had been explicit.
The rest of the family milled around the plush waiting room, sipping coffee and, in the case of Allison’s father, sneaking quick drinks from a pocket flask. Riley didn’t blame him. She’d always thought that, given the circumstances, the firm should offer something stronger than coffee.
The room was lushly appointed--part funeral parlor, part executive suite. The tones and furnishings were carefully neutral: leather sofas and beige walls, the occasional unobtrusive landscape painting. On other floors it was different, she knew. The churches and religious organizations with permanent space at the Terminus tended to convert their rooms into chapels, some with all the grandeur of old world cathedrals. Then there were the smaller rooms on the highest floors, private rentals that were little more than a terminal and a chair, perhaps a bed for those who could afford a standing booking.
Those were the lifers, those who had liquidated their assets and now resided at the Terminus, keeping constant company with their dead - at least until the money ran out. Riley had seen them shuffling through the halls, dazed and unkempt, accepting the charity of delivered meals, ghosts who still drew breath. They called them the “living dead.”
Riley couldn’t help them, not in any way that mattered. But maybe she could do something for the little girl. Allison still hadn’t responded, but she was doing her best to be brave, peering up at Riley with interest.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
It was the girl’s father, David, who answered. “Because Mother gets what Mother wants, alive or dead.”
He was a paunchy man in his forties, his dark designer suit straining around his middle. According to the file, he was a managing partner at a mid-sized tech company, the reasonably successful scion of an even wealthier family.
Allison leapt up and ran to him, burying her face against his leg. At that, his expression softened. Gathering the girl into his arms, he sank onto the sofa, defeated. This time he didn’t bother to hide his flask as he took another sip.
“My wife wouldn’t come, you know. Wanted to keep Allie with her, said she was too young.” He shook his head, finally meeting Riley’s eyes. “No way around it, though. Not with that contract you and Mother drew up.”
“Arrangements like yours aren’t uncommon--”
“Oh, save it.” He sighed, his expression more resigned than accusing. “I’m sure you’re just doing your job, helping Mother ‘insure her relevance,’ or whatever your damn ads say. If we don’t resurrect her once a year and drag the kids here for their annual visit, they lose their college funds. I’d always expected a fight when she passed, inheritance squabbles and all that, but this…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
“Hush, Dave. Don’t speak ill of the dead.” His brother, Sebastian, crossed the room and sat beside him, giving his niece an affectionate kiss on the forehead. Sebastian was younger, trimmer, and - according to the file - recently divorced. He’d brought his own two sons, who were currently across the room playing on their phones under the watchful eye of Allison’s teenaged brother. Smiling in their direction, Sebastian offered Riley an apologetic nod. “My brother doesn’t appreciate the miraculous nature of this little family reunion.”
“And you always did buy Mother’s bullshit.”
Sebastian lifted Allison into his own lap. “You want to see Grandma again, don’t you, Allie?”
The girl nodded.
“And you remember what we talked about?”
“She’s like Jesus, now?”
“Just like that,” her uncle confirmed, with a wink for Riley over the child’s head. “She came back to see you because she loves you very much.”
Beside them, David scowled. Riley doubted the girl was old enough to understand the concept of her grandmother’s death, let alone the complex processes that would allow her to communicate with her family from beyond the grave. The religious fervor that some clients brought to their visits had always made Riley uncomfortable, but the Terminus did tend to bring that out in people.
As if sensing her thoughts, Sharon Pembrooke’s younger son gave Riley a searching smile. “How is Mother? You’ve spoken with her?”
Riley had, earlier that morning. It was standard procedure to establish contact as soon as the firm received news of a client’s death, to orient the recently deceased and confirm the stability of the signal before the family was allowed to see them. Someone people expected to see saints or angels when they died. Instead, what they got was Riley.
Sure, there was a chance that Heaven or Nirvana or the Beyond existed. In the years that the Terminus had been up and running, the dead had given maddeningly diverse accounts of the specifics. In speaking to them, Riley had come to picture the immediate reality of “the other side” as something like an airport waiting area, filled with souls coming and going on their way to wherever they were supposed to be. Many reported a sort of “consensus reality,” one that mirrored the structures of the real world and acted as a training area where the newly dead might gather and prepare themselves to move on. There they could mingle, receive guidance, and grow accustomed to their new state of being. But still it was separate, the veil between the living and the dead impassable even at its thinnest. That was, until the Terminus.
Were they plucked from there, she wondered? Were they simply waiting for the call that would allow them to manifest once more in the world of the living? Or was the machine ripping them loose from their eternal moorings, reversing the natural order? That’s what the anti-Terminus religious sects would have the world believe and Riley, here in the thick of it, couldn’t definitively say that they were wrong.
The only way to know was to see for herself. Maybe that was why she’d done what she had done. Just to see. There had been other reasons, sure. The depression, the sudden pressure of being thrust into the spotlight, the sheer mindfuck of raising the dead day in and day out, of putting a price tag on the miraculous. She had wanted out. But Riley hadn’t even been able to do that right. The paramedics had revived her within minutes. Near-death experiences were supposed to be all bright lights, maybe some floating and looking down on your own body. But in her case, she had seen only… nothing. Nothing at all.
Had Pembrooke not requested her specifically, Riley would still be on her leave of absence. The firm might have even fired her, if they knew the particulars. Physically, she had recovered, but she’d returned to work more convinced than ever that, for many of the dead, the Terminus was the only chance they had for a light in the darkness. It didn’t exactly fill her with optimism.
Coming back to herself, she nodded. “Initial contact was successful. Her signal is strong. You’ll find your mother much as she was.”
“Caustic?” David supplied. “Demanding?”
Sebastian clucked his tongue.
There were plenty of things that Riley was supposed to say. Before the Terminus, people like her were meant to tell the family that their loved ones were at peace, that the transition had been painless. Now, the concerns were somewhat different. “She’s lucid. Manifesting clearly. Her personality appears to be intact.”
Little Allison was staring at her now. What she made of any of this, Riley couldn’t guess.
“If you’re ready, you can see her now.”
David took another drink. Sebastian nodded, setting his niece aside to go and collect his boys. Four grandchildren, two sons, and a rich old matriarch who refused to be forgotten. Riley sighed.
The firm’s meeting rooms were on the tower’s outer perimeter, open and airy with the light from the windows that looked out over the city. Riley led the solemn procession across the hall, to the Terminus parlor where she had summoned Sharon Pembrooke only hours before. Punching in the door code, she ushered the family inside.
Forcing a practiced smile, Riley launched into the script, a simplistic explanation of what they were about to see. Their grandmother might look different, she reminded them. Most spirits manifested their residual self-image, appearing in their youthful prime, or the age at which they felt most themselves.
She explained the charged particles, the need for DNA to establish a physical link, a focal point for the energy. Earlier, she had used a keycard, a preserved slide of the old woman’s blood set into what looked like a high-tech credit card. They were used in cases where the deceased left no blood relatives, or where the relatives could not be present, although the cards had a short shelf-life, being rapidly degraded in the process. It would be better for one of the sons to press his hand to the thumb reader, she advised them, to let the machine take a painless prick, an offering from the living to the dead. Theoretically, the machine could trace the ancestry of a living user back generations, though the strength of the signal varied from person to person and the greater the distance, the weaker it became. Whether keycard or thumb reader was used, the machine would refract the energy through the blood, some unseen function of DNA or entangled particles, like calling to like.
Little Allison still clung to her father’s leg. Her cousins were restless, her elder brother staring at the dark window of the machine and rocking with excitement. It was Sebastian who stepped forward, pressing this thumb to the reader as Riley stepped aside. David took another drink.
The machine whirred and came slowly to life. On the other side of the darkened glass, the son’s blood would be diffusing, acting as an anchor - and offering - for his genetic line. Riley worked the controls, targeting the maternal line, a single generation back. It was far from a precise science. That morning’s summons had been easier, with her keycard sample of Sharon Pembrooke’s own blood, but this method at least allowed the family to be involved. Given the otherwise sterile nature of the process, that had to count for something.
Behind the glass, the screen rose, a shadowy figure resolving into the form of the late Sharon Pembrooke. She appeared younger than she had in life, though she still wore a starched navy suit and a thick string of pearls. Her hair, while loose, was a hazy grey. As the lines and colors continued to sharpen, the connection solidified and Riley could make out the wrinkles around her eyes. Most of the dead manifested the appearance of being in the prime of life, but they were looking at a woman in her fifties, maybe older.
“Mother?” David fell to his knees, his voice breaking.
A shadow of pity crossed Sebastian’s face as he lay a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Hi, Mom.”
Sharon Pembrooke stared out at each of them in turn, her hazy smile sharpening as she watched her grandchildren approach the glass. That would explain the woman’s appearance, Riley realized. Despite her prim and prickly demeanor, Sharon Pembrooke lit up when talking about the children, in both life and in death. Just that morning, she had boasted to Riley of the eldest’s college acceptance. If being a grandmother had been the happiest time of her life, it made sense that her self-image would appear matronly, instead of in her youth.
Riley smiled and shrank back toward the door. For these family encounters, it was best to stay out of the way, unobtrusive but available should they need her.
Her own maternal grandmother had passed away two years earlier, but Riley’s father’s parents were both alive and well in Florida. The last time Riley had visited, she had hardly recognized them. Family holidays with them had always been the same – warm, sedate, boring. Riley had only made one recent visit and had since used every excuse she could think of to avoid going back.
Her grandmother had answered the door in a lime green bikini; that part she'd never forget. The pictures of Riley and her cousins had been pushed back on the shelves, covered instead in old photos of her grandmother and grandfather.
"They used to make me sad," her grandmother had said by way of explanation when she caught her looking. "No reason for that now."
Riley supposed it must have been a bitter thing, being reminded of the way you used to look. But word had gotten out. All of the famous dead who had come back looked like they had in their prime, as young as they wanted to be, preserved in the moment they were most themselves. Old wasn't forever anymore and both of her grandparents were obviously excited by the prospect of being young again. They'd kept giving each other looks and Riley swore she'd once heard her grandfather growl. Her grandmother had giggled.
It hadn't just been them, either. The entire retirement community seemed different. She'd been just a kid the first few times, but she swore she'd never seen two naked guys careening around on a golf cart before. The excitement was a good thing, she'd told herself at the time. Eternity had been confirmed and people were eagerly arranging their afterlives, no longer just waiting to die, but looking forward to it.
In fact, the only reason Malcolm Vanth’s revelation hadn’t been met with mass suicides is that none of the dead had been particularly forthcoming about the rules. It seemed their fates were self-determined, their ghostly existence dictated by what they had believed in life. At least, that was the commonly accepted explanation for the wildly varied reports. For every spirit who returned with tales of otherworldly paradise there were still more who, like Riley, reported seeing nothing at all. Countless studies and interviews had been conducted but, after the initial shock, most of the old religions were able to compensate. Discounting a few sects still in vicious opposition, many had come to see the Terminus as a validation of their beliefs, especially the promise of eternal reward. Or punishment, Riley supposed.
But even those who weren’t eager to die were suddenly less afraid to live. Since the first Terminus was erected, life expectancy in the United States had dropped by ten years.
Riley snapped out of her reverie, to find the family watching her. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Something’s wrong,” David said, gesturing to the control console. “We can’t hear her.”
Sure enough, Pembrooke’s mouth was moving behind the glass, but no sound came from the machine’s speakers.
Riley returned to the control console and checked the settings. Nothing had changed. As she scanned the readout, the speaker suddenly squawked to life, the burst of garbled dissonance sending her reeling backward. The only thing that saved her chair from toppling over was Sebastian’s forestalling hand, but his eyes remained fixed on the glass before them.
“That’s not supposed to happen, is it?
Looking up, Riley saw that the outline had gone faint, Sharon Pembrooke’s earthly form stretching before their eyes, her jaw clenching as the haze around her thickened. It was like a hall of mirrors effect, the kind of trailing echo that the dead left behind them if they moved too quickly. But the shadows were more substantial than the woman now, pulling her dizzyingly backward.
“Stop it!” David shouted. “You’re hurting her.”
Still clinging to his leg, little Allison began to wail.
“I’m trying, I--”
Riley adjusted the signal and the speaker squawked again, the feedback sounding eerily like a scream. Beyond the window, the darkness thickened, obscuring the spirit entirely.
“Make it stop! Turn it off! Turn it off now!” David lurched toward the controls, barely restrained by his brother. But Sebastian didn’t look at him. His gaze was still locked to the space where their mother had been.
“Fix it,” he whispered. “Bring her back.”
Riley wasn’t sure that was the best idea. Her instinct was to shut the machine off entirely, but protocol warned against breaking the connection without the proper shutdown procedures.
Before she could decide, the darkness abruptly receded, the figure of Sharon Pembrooke snapping back into sudden focus.
She blinked out that them, uncomprehending. “Sebastian? David?”
“Mom! Are you alright?”
She didn’t answer, but the woman’s dazed expression was enough to set Allison to wailing again. David gathered the girl into his arms with a murderous glare for Riley.
“What was that?”
“I’m… not sure. I’ve never seen anything like that happen before. But I can assure you--”
He snorted. “I assure you, Miss Kosic, that your firm’s partners will be hearing about this. In fact, I’m of a mind to march over to your offices right now and--”
“Dave,” Sebastian interrupted. He looked to Riley. “Can you fix it?”
“I don’t know. But we have people who can, technical specialists. I’ll call right now and--”
Sharon spoke up from behind the glass. “I don’t feel much like talking anymore.”
“Mrs. Pembrooke.” Riley stood. “What did you experience? Are you alright?”
“Still dead, girl. It all just seems so ...” She trailed off, her form fading back into near transparency.
“For what we’re paying, this is simply unacceptable,” David continued. “We came here to see Mother and if you can’t even manage--”
Riley squared her shoulders. “Mr. Pembrooke, I can assure you that we will put our best people on the problem. Take you daughter back to the hotel, let her get some rest. We’ll let your mother do the same. Come back tomorrow and I promise you, we’ll have the machine restored to full functionality.”
He scowled, but looking down at Allison in his arms deflated him. With a final glance at his mother’s fading form and a last doubtful glare for Riley, he gathered the other children and left.
Sebastian lingered. “Apologies for my brother’s behavior. He’s taking the loss hard. We all are.” His eyes fixed on Riley’s, for the moment every bit as blazing as his brothers. “We can’t lose her again.”
“I understand.” Riley nodded. “We’ll get her back.”
“Thank you. The same time tomorrow, then?”
By the time the younger son had gone, the shade of Sharon Pembrooke had faded entirely. The glass darkened, the shade lowering as the machine switched itself off.
Riley stood alone in the dim, staring at the console and wondering. She hadn’t executed the shutdown. The dead never ended a summons themselves. They couldn’t control the Terminus, not like that. And the pain on the spirit’s face, the encroaching darkness….
What the hell had she just witnessed?