Terminus: Prologue

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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 pilgrims and tourists filled the garden, 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 knew.

She had seen him here before, a familiar face with a forgotten 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, and pressed as close to the building’s entrance as they could before security intervened. 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, sand, and a lonely outpost where a grieving physcist 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 Riley and her firm 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 and deliberately neutral, the entryway was a jumbled collection of statues and totems, plinths and pillars, symbols of faith from every corner of the world. The Garden of the Gods, they called it.

Early reactions had been varied, but the world’s fascination had been undeniable. Soon enough every known religion had rushed to make the experience of entering the Terminus their own. Buddha rubbed elbows with the crucified Christ, prayer rugs lined the path beside crumbling statues carried from Greek temples, a totem pole cast its shadow over something called the Tunnel of Genuflection. Smaller offerings clustered at the feet of the statues – 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 and night.

Riley 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 the 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. This was the way it could have been, should have been. Riley hid a smile in her cup.

Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t recall the old man’s name. It had been something simple - Johnson or Jackson. He had been a client of her firm once, one of the first cases she had observed when Riley herself was new to the job, to this place, to the Terminus. It had been back when she still believed that they were here to help people, that the tower and the miracle it contained would somehow bring the world together, make people less afraid. But that feeling was as faded as the old man, a relic of another time, barely remembered.

The crowds were even thicker than usual today, electrified by the upcoming anniversary celebration. It had been nearly ten years since this 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 government outpost in the Arizona desert had become a pilgrim’s encampment when Doctor 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, church tents, and military barricades. From that complex and the wild sprawl around it, the city had been born. Once the discovery was vetted, funding poured in, financiers snapping up land and building an oasis that soon became the focus of the world. The building 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 bench. He still drew breath, still managed to make his way downtown, but the Terminus had taken everything else. It had been his wife and child that brought him here - Riley remembered that much, the way his voice had trembled when he recounted the accident that had stolen them away. For the chance to see them again, he had left his life behind and relocated, rationed whatever money he had left to cover his Terminus fees. It had run out eventually, of course, and her firm had been forced to recommend more “economical” options. Riley was certain she’d spotted him at one of the religious mission shelters down the block. If he was lucky and arrived early enough in the morning, he could queue up for one of the daily charity appointments or try and beg a few moments with the machine from more fortunate passersby.

He wasn’t the first to give up everything and he wouldn’t be the last.

As she watched, a commotion in the tower’s circular drive startled the old man awake. Riley flushed, thinking herself 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 entrance, causing a surge in the crowd waiting outside the doors. The anniversary celebration was drawing its share of high profile guests from amongst both the living and the dead, with a slate of appearances and even a concert planned for the night of the anniversary itself. Of course, this being the Terminus, most of the headlining 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 being 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, Riley recognized Kirk Sullivan, Legend’s bassist and least remarkable member, who had missed that fateful flight. He reminded her of everything else in the city, fine but faded, a face that was familiar yet 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 offered 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 old man Jackson - or was it Johnson? - wipe the sleep from his eyes and rise unsteadily from his bench. She wondered about his family, what they had been like when they were alive and happy. She wondered about Sullivan and what he'd felt when he heard about the crash 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 the trashcan had a gleaming memorial placard bolted to the front, bearing the name of some dearly departed donor. The dead must have their due. And Riley 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 of eternity ahead of her, but Riley suspected that pointing that out would only serve to piss her off.