Terminus: Chapter One

© Jaye Milius and jayemilius.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jaye Milius and jayemilius.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The building really was beautiful. Taller than any other in the city, it had started as a subterranean bunker, a remote listening station meant to measure cosmic background radiation - echoes from the very dawn of creation. Instead, in their isolation, Doctor Vanth and his team had pinpointed the energy signature of the human soul.

Now, little of the original structure remained. When Vanth had circumvented his superiors and publicly revealed the truth of their discovery, inventors had poured in from around the world, eager to claim a piece of this new and miraculous future. The collaboration was hailed as a new era for mankind, disparate people coming together in the service of something greater. Working here, though, Riley had seen the truth of their motivations. The once awesome sight of the doors looming up before her had lost its magic.

The tower that had been erected over the initial complex swept upward in modern lines of glass and steel, but it had been embellished over the years with all the pomp and pageantry that humanity has always accorded their higher mysteries. It was both a laboratory and a temple, with neo-gothic columns behind seamless windows, flying buttresses side-by-side with artfully riveted beams. Science had provided the breakthrough, raised the first walls, but it was the faith of mankind that had expanded the Terminus into the eighty-five stories towering over her.

The whole city was like that. Once, had been a focused effort, the hope of the entire world. An empty swath of Arizona desert had become something wondrous seemingly overnight, the city spiraling outward as the tower at its center grew. Since the New York and Singapore locations had opened, though, the streets of Bridge City were not as full as they'd once been. The grandeur of it was starting to ring hollow, the mechanics of death and resurrection taking on the sameness of routine. Other cities had life, culture, commerce. Here, the Terminus had warped it all.

When Malcolm Vanth had first opened his window to the realm of the dead, he had been under a non-disclosure agreement. But Vanth had violated it, gone straight to the media with his discovery, solidifying his reputation as a people’s folk hero in the process. The video that he released had been hazy, the recording technology not yet optimized to capture the high-frequency vibrations of the apparition within the machine, but the accompanying data had been enough to peak the interest of the world’s brightest minds. The rest saw only a shifting light behind the glass of the Terminus prototype, one that cast underwater shadows on the dark walls of the lab. It had become an iconic image in the intervening years, a first glimpse that would forever be burned into Riley’s memory.

With Vanth’s upload, it had been too late. Whatever consequences he might have faced, word was out and the powers that be - governments, tech firms, even religious institutions - were forced to get on board or be left behind. The circumstances of the team’s early work were still something of a mystery, involving energy fields and quantum entanglement and other things that went well over Riley’s head. But one thing was certain - one of the team members hadn’t survived the project.

Pausing before the building’s entrance, Riley shaded her eyes and looked up. One statue in the garden dominated all the rest, assured its place in a mandate by Vanth himself. It stood just before the doors, the towering visage tall and grey and sad, but still a sign of hope for all who passed beneath her: Catherine Verena, the woman for whom Vanth had conquered death.

It had been years since Riley had seen the film adaptation, but everyone knew the basics of the story. Once, Malcolm Vanth had been a physics professor. Catherine had been his student. They’d had an ill-fated affair, but when Vanth landed his research contract, he had tempted her back as part of his new team. There were a handful of others, all working together in the middle of nowhere to isolate deep space energy signals. Whatever they’d stumbled upon had cost Catherine her life, but Vanth - dedicated and brilliant and maybe a little mad - had found a way to bring her back.

Romance had overcome death; the end wasn’t really the end. It was no wonder people loved the tale.

Eventually Vanth’s portal was expanded, stretched into eighty-five stories of autonomous viewing parlors that could be bought or rented, each a private window to the departed soul of a user’s choosing. As far as anyone knew, there was no limit. When the effect had been replicated in New York, the building that sprang up around it had been even more impressive. Singapore's Terminus Three was taller still. Even London, yet to open its doors, was reporting bookings in the hundreds of thousands. The waiting list was already two years long.

Maybe Riley was lucky. Skirting the morning lines, she flashed her badge at the guard on duty and pushed through a side door marked "Employees Only." There was another line for press and another for those with long-term contracts. In the interest of fairness, a certain number of first-come-first-serve parlors were made available every morning for a more modest fee, but those were usually claimed before the sun was up. Sometimes the people left in line would turn to begging, sharing sad tale after sad tale with those hurrying through the other doors. Just a few minutes, they only ever needed a few minutes.

Inside, the queues doubled back on themselves, the high-ceilinged lobby echoing with muted whispers of those waiting for their turn to raise the dead. Video screens were spaced throughout the lines, showing slick video packages on the tower’s history, offers of counseling and legal services, even “post-mortal retirement” funds that allowed the living to plan ahead for their own Terminus return. “Assure your eternity today!”

Riley silently mouthed the words as she took her turn at the security desk, handing her briefcase over for inspection. On the nearest screen, an olive-skinned woman with a short wavy hair smiled hollowly out of a field of white. Her tailored white suit, the white desk, the white walls of her office - it was meant to look pristine, professional, even heavenly. The woman leaned forward, her smile inviting and sympathetic. Pretty, but not threatening. Young, but not so young as to seem incapable. That “murky ethnic blend” that the commercial’s producer had been so keen to point out. It was important to remind people that the Terminus was accessible to anyone. So long as they could pay.

A man in the nearest queue was staring in Riley’s direction, recognizing her as the woman on the screen. Turning quickly away, she flashed a tired smile at the security guard as he waved her through.

Agreeing to do the commercial had been a terrible idea from the start. It would have been easier to hire an actor, but the firm had instead asked for testimonies from the staff. Riley’s boss, Mr. Morgan, wanted to “show their clients the real deal.” She hadn’t volunteered, but that hadn’t stopped him from offering Riley up anyway. Apparently, she was “competent enough” as a case manager, but what she really had a gift for was putting people at ease. “Natural empathy,” he called it. Said it like it was a compliment, too.

She didn’t know if Morgan was right but, in Riley’s experience, empathy was no gift. At least, not here.

She had never wanted to be the face of the firm. Riley couldn’t get used to the looks of recognition, to the requests from clients like Mrs. Pembrooke who wanted to work with “the nice young woman from the video.” Sure, the ad might have landed her one of the firm’s most lucrative accounts, but the newfound notoriety hadn’t done Riley any favors with her coworkers. Her recent leave of absence had only made matters worse.

It had been nearly a month since she’d set foot in the building. The official story was that Riley had been recovering from an appendectomy. It had been Morgan’s idea. She could take all the time she needed, he assured her, but they’d need a cover story. It wouldn’t reflect well on the firm if the truth about their poster child got out.

Her leave should have lasted another week, but Pembrooke’s passing had drawn Riley back to see to the old woman’s demands. Death, as always, would not be ignored.

Riley made her way toward the elevators, following the morning crowds beneath fluted columns of grey and white. It was much the same within the building as without – a grand tomb veined with shafts of steel and bright fluorescent lights, with a double row of elevators waiting to carry the mourning smoothly toward the sky. There would be changeovers higher up, lobbies and tasteful relaxation areas for those heading up to the more private floors, but most of the public and professional parlors were on the lower levels. Her company held a standing lease on three viewing parlors on the twenty-eighth floor.

Moving deeper into the building always made her skin crawl. It wasn’t the same for everyone, but there were some who theorized that the Terminus marked a “thinness in the veil,” a place where the worlds of the living and the dead seeped into one another. That’s certainly how it felt to her. Riley had thought about quitting, or at least transferring to a division that worked in the firm’s adjunct offices outside the city, but this was where the jobs were – the good ones, at least. Afterlife planning was the country's largest growth industry. It had been ever since she'd left college, with half of her graduating class being recruited into post-mortal law, banking, and technology services. There were even those who specialized in caring for the "living dead,"  the growing indigent population who, like old Mr. Jackson, had traded everything they had for a glimpse of those they’d lost. A newsfeed had once said that her generation had shipped off to Bridge City like earlier generations had shipped off to war. The momentum had been too much to resist.

Riley specialized in PMRAs – Post-Mortal Retirement Accounts. The workings were similar to those of an old-fashioned retirement plan, though instead of distributing assets, PMRAs set the parameters for their reinvestment, provisions by which the dead's comfort and influence could be sustained. That was the thing about those who had passed on – given the chance, most still wanted to be a part of the world. Many of those with means simply wanted to assure that they wouldn't be forgotten, that some member of the family would visit them, that they'd receive regular news of the world. It was Riley's job to manage the necessary – and in Mrs. Pembrooke’s case quite substantial – funds, to make recommendations about sustainability and distribute any remaining assets, especially those classified as conditional. For example, the old woman had demanded that her grandchildren visit her at the Terminus once a year or risk losing their college funds. Riley really wasn’t looking forward to breaking that news to the family.

Before she could reach the elevators, an arm snaked around her waist and gave her a familiar squeeze.

“Hey there, RiRi. Heard your old lady kicked it. Wasn’t sure you’d make it back.”

Riley stiffened, shrugging away from the lingering hand of Graham Wilshire. Graham was one of those coworkers who saw Riley’s commercial appearance and her landing of the Pembrooke account as some twisted sort of favoritism. He’d made no secret of his jealousy, even before her mysterious sabbatical.

“No doubt you’d have been willing to step in if I didn’t.”

“You know how it is. They go and we come.” He winked.

Riley looked away. Once, she had found his act charming, his cavalier attitude a change of pace from the Terminus’ usual somber gloom. More likely she had just been bored, just been lonely. There weren’t many dating options when your life was your job and your job was death. Whatever the case, things hadn’t worked out between them.

“Yeah, well, I’m here now. Poach clients from someone else.”

Graham pursed his lips in mock offense, his eyes raking downward. “Thought you’d be sore.”

“What?”

He nodded to her hip, where he had grabbed her. “Your appendix? That surgery you just had?”

He’d been probing her, Riley realized, testing the truth of her cover story. He was probing still.

“Yeah,” she hissed, placing a protective hand over the would-be wound. “Still sore.”

“Uh huh.” Graham looked unconvinced, but made a show of shrugging it off as the elevator arrived and its riders filed out past them.

“You’re not coming up?”

He shook his head. “Headed out, actually. Not that I envy you. It’s never easy dealing with the families.”

Pembrooke’s family would be arriving that afternoon. Graham was right; it wasn’t easy, but it was the job. Not for the first time, Riley wondered how someone like Graham had ended up here. There wasn’t a sympathetic bone in the guy’s body.

With a sweep of his arm, he stepped back and ushered her toward the open elevator doors. It was only as they began to close that he nodded toward her hand, still hovering protectively at her hip. “Oh, and RiRi? Your appendix is on the other side.”

As the doors closed on his triumphant grin, Riley sank back against the elevator wall. The woman who had entered ahead of her gave her a commiserating smile. Hers was another familiar, if nameless, face - a fellow Terminus professional, though not with Riley’s firm. She had a matronly demeanor, her suit somber and dark, but it was the people with her that drew Riley’s eye. They were an older couple, dazed and huddled together, their gazes fixed on the floor. Parents, definitely. Parents who had lost a child. Those were the worst of all.

Riley busied herself with her table and pulled up Mrs. Pembrooke’s obituary. The dead were usually eager to read them, and on occasion even wrote their own. Mostly, she was trying not to listen to the conversation beside her.

The woman in the suit talked in hushed and soothing tones, using words like "closure" and "no one's fault." The father stood silent, though he gave a little jump as the elevator lurched upward. The mother seemed more composed, quietly apprehensive rather than tearful.

"Is Kevin okay?" she wanted to know.

Riley had seen their visitors' badges when they came in, the bold letters naming them both "Guest O'Connell." Once, she might have chalked it up to professional curiosity or even just habit, but she was already in the obituary database and found herself keying in the name.

Kevin O'Connell had been a fifteen-year-old honor student from Lubbock, Texas. He'd shot himself a week ago.

Riley clicked off of the obituary and back to Pembrooke’s file, but not before she noticed the dark-haired man at the back of the elevator. He stood against the rear wall, tall and lean and about her age. He had been trying to read her tablet over her shoulder, she realized, as he offered her a sheepish smile and raised his hands in apologetic surrender. When he nodded questioningly toward the grieving couple, Riley could only shrug.

"Not just yet," the dark-suited woman was assuring the mother. "But we'll get him the help that he needs."

It was all Riley could do to hold her tongue at that point. She sagged back against the wall, but they'd come to the couple's floor. The woman held the door again and ushered them out.

"Lawyer?" the dark-haired man asked as the doors slid shut.

Riley shook her head. "Shrink.” She didn’t say the rest, though she’d seen things like this before. The boy had killed himself and his parents were bringing him back for therapy.

"What about you?" His chin was shadowed and unshaven, his hair tied in a messy knot at the back of his neck. No suit either, just a t-shirt and jeans, but he was too clean to be one of the resident mourners. He didn't smile so much as smirk, but it was the way he stood – slouch-shouldered and awkward – that got her wondering. He wasn't just uncomfortable being here. That was only common sense. He looked like he'd be uncomfortable anywhere.

"Financial planner. You?"

"I'm just looking for the vending machines."

They'd come to her floor. As the doors slid open, she forced herself to meet his eyes. "They're up on thirty. The machines."

"Yeah, I know." He shrugged and tried another half-smile. "Have fun… planning."

Her mother would be thrilled, Riley thought as she hurried down the familiar corridor. It was the first conversation she'd had with a guy in weeks that didn't consist entirely of her drink order or start with "now that you've moved on…." But no one ever really moves on. Not the guy in the elevator, not Kevin O'Connell's parents, not the living, and certainly not the dead. Whatever had weighed on those slouched shoulders wasn't going away anytime soon.

It’s not like she was any better, though. As many times as she'd come to visit strangers, Riley never once had the nerve to use the Terminus for herself. Her mother had been pushing since her grandmother died, encouraging her to use her "connections" to get a visit. Riley didn’t have the heart to tell her that she didn’t have the stomach for it, that guiding others through the experience was bad enough.

Circumventing the office suites that hugged the tower’s out wall, Riley hurried straight to Parlor 2883 and punched in the door code. It wasn’t just this place, wasn’t just the Terminus. The entire world had changed in the decade since the veil of death had been drawn back.

Her client, Sharon Pembrooke had done well in life. She had passed away at the age of eighty-nine, in her sleep and by all assumptions peacefully, leaving behind two sons, five grandchildren and a forty acre vineyard in northern California. That would pass to the sons and later to the grandchildren, of course. The family lawyer had already started the paperwork. It fell to Riley to deal with Mrs. Pembrooke herself.

The only time they had met in life, the woman had been imposing, confident in the power of her wealth and position, a stern old matriarch who had spent a lifetime watching others leap to her demands. But when the call came, it was Riley’s job to show up. And who knew? A woman like Pembrooke might take comfort in being greeted by investment advisers in the afterlife.

As far as she knew, Parlor 2833 was no different than any other. Deeper than it was wide, with walls that narrowed at the far end, the room pulled the eye inward, creating a passing sensation of vertigo. What Vanth had created was only the core, usually depicted as a cone of light stretched between two reactors, one on the roof and one buried beneath the earth. The tower had been built around it, its rooms wedges of a pie that hugged the inner shaft. Elevators, lobbies, and offices were limited to the outer walls, along with tall, arched windows that looked out across the city. Riley had never heard of anyone climbing the tower for the view, though. People came here to look inward.

At the room's far end was a desk with an embedded center console that flickered to life as the door slid shut behind her. Two plastic chairs and a potted plant rounded out the décor, along with a few shapeless blurs of abstract color framed on the walls. Someone must have thought they would make the place look more homey. Not surprisingly, many of the recently deceased preferred not to wake up in a room that looked like the hospital they'd just left.

Setting her briefcase on the desk, Riley punched in the combination and flipped open the lid. Beneath her notebooks and back-up batteries, a small box was built into the lining. Its lock was even more complicated than the one on the outside. The dead had done well for themselves. They had rights, lobbyists, even new sources of income. But this, this tiny box, was what kept them at the mercy of the living. Funny, she'd never drawn much comfort from that thought.

The dead weren’t autonomous. The Terminus might be a window to the other side, but only a living relative - or their blood - could summon and sustain the apparition. Once activated, the machine would pluck the soul of choice from… wherever and allow them to manifest within the core, behind the thick paned glass of the console. Words could be exchanged, the living and the dead brought face-to-face once more, but those who had passed beyond could no longer touch or taste or feel. For a lot of people, it was enough. Families could still visit, lovers could still start longingly into each other’s eyes. She had even read a news story about a novelist who was continuing his best-selling series through dictation.

But sometimes even words were too much. There was another story, one from back when the Terminus had still been new. After an eight-year manhunt, police had finally apprehended Kip James, a deranged killer who had buried more than two dozen women across the Mid-West. James wasn't the type to be taken alive, though, and after his final firefight with the SWAT team, the authorities had brought him back to get their answers. Most of his testimony had been given in this very building. It had been all over the news, the first case of its kind. He'd even led investigators to a few more bodies. Because James was in the Terminus, he was safe, neutered. Because he was dead, his days of killing were supposedly through.

That was until an intrepid, young reporter named Samantha Mayhew secured a headline-grabbing, three-part exclusive interview. After a succession of meetings with James – during what was being billed as “the world's first post-mortal trial” – friends claimed to notice a change in Mayhew's demeanor. Even her writing gave warning, with each article more sympathetic and less cohesive than the last. On the afternoon that James was finally convicted, the reporter was found hanging from an overhead beam in the interview parlor.

This had led to the hotly debated Mayhew Amendment, which extended the law into the afterlife and set guidelines by which the deceased could lose their right to be summoned. In cases where life in prison or the death penalty wasn't enough, the state could file an injunction that barred the convicted and their family from ever using the Terminus. A person could lose their legacy, their eternity, at least as far as this world was concerned.

Riley had tired of the politics of it, never digging too far beyond the headlines, but this obviously didn't sit well with some people. The Legacy Initiative was the most vocal of the self-styled "post-mortal civil rights" organizations that had taken it upon themselves to speak for those who had passed on. They regularly clashed with Life First groups, who believed that giving too much consideration to the dead infringed upon the rights of the living. The Children of Remembrance claimed to be neutral, promoting the Terminus as a means of preserving knowledge and ideas, though they were usually indistinguishable from Legacy activists. There were also hardline groups who believed that the entire idea was unnatural and couldn’t be regulated through lobbying and legislating. Last week's bombing of the London tower’s construction site had probably been one of theirs, though there were already enough angry people in the streets who simply wanted a place in line.

With a sigh, she punched in the lock’s code and lifted the lid on the little box. The inside was well padded, with a slit at its center. A keycard waited there and she lifted it out carefully. It was no bigger than a credit card—hard plastic edges with a thin, stained pane of glass at its center. She wondered if Samantha Mayhew had had a keycard. She would have needed to have one to summon James.

There were two ways to activate the console – a slot for the keycard and a thumb reader which would give the user a tiny, needle-fine prick. It took blood to summon the dead, either their own or that of a close relative. The keycard system had been invented because having a relative present for each use of the Terminus had quickly turned out to be impractical. The effectiveness of the blood also diminished if you strayed much beyond immediate family or through too many generations; it was easier to summon a father than an uncle, a grandmother than a great-grandmother. The dead would still appear, but they would be fainter and sometimes encountered interference from the more immediate relatives.

Riley found her eyes straying to the thumb pad. It wasn't that she was afraid—not really. Summoning her own ancestors would be easy.

Scowling, she slid Mrs. Pembrooke's card into the slot. A person's own blood always provided the clearest summon, but the effectiveness of each keycard diminished over time. There was something corrosive about the way that the energy was focused through the blood sample. Despite the family members on their way, the old woman had had her card made in triplicate, with additional vials on file at the firm's storage facility. Some celebrities even sold off keycards before they were dead and a few famous children had made decent livings selling their own blood.

Above the console was a dark window that stretched the length of the inner wall and looked like the back side of a two-way mirror. Riley could see the faint outline of the shade behind it rising as the console whirred to life. All of the windows were shaded and wouldn't activate until the blood had been paid. It also took time for the system to locate one individual or genetic line. As far as she knew, no one had ever looked into the core itself, not without an active summon. She wondered what it looked like.

When the shade rose, she seemed to be looking into a gray haze, like staring out the window on a foggy day. If she tried to squint, the details would slip sideways and refuse to form, but she knew better by now. Riley let the muscles in her face relax and put on her best sympathetic smile.

"Mrs. Pembrooke? Welcome to the afterlife."