“Your tone implies you believe him.”
“My tone?” lines formed on Detective Matthew Travis’ face. He turned away from Detective Soma Dan, his partner at both Helison PD and in commuting home via transit shuttle. “Dan, can you please switch off lie detector mode when you’re talking to me. I don’t believe him. And even though he was convinced he had to because of what that psychic told him, it was still his decision to shoot the girlfriend. It’s just…I find it interesting. Who’s to say there aren’t malevolent voices whispering in the ether?”
“I say there aren’t.” Soma turned to look out the window of the shuttle car and past the reflection of frustrated lines around her oval eyes, baggy after the long day. Streetlights flashed by in a blur, houses moved past in a hurried walk, green hills behind everything sauntered by at their own, calm pace. Concrete, defined movements in her frame of view, following the principles of optics. Observable, measurable, non-deceptive principles. “Police detectives don’t chase ghosts and demons.”
Travis shifted in his seat and looked back. They were near the end of this route, so the car was empty, just floating along in the grass-covered trough in the center of the road. Going where the transit system told it to go. Travis sighed. “I know your husband believes in some stuff.”
“He was raised in a home that believed in Seven. But he grew up and left home and put away fairy tales.”
The car was silent a moment. Travis lowered his voice. “Did you put any fairy tells away?”
Soma looked straight at his gray eyes, boarded in the light wrinkles of a grin.
A dull, mechanical voice crackled over the car’s PA: “NOW ARRIVING. AT H-TWO-FOUR-ONE, HOUSE SEVENTEEN.”
The car slowed and the door opened. Soma sighed and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Travis called out as she was about to walk off: “You’ve got a secret. Did you have a favorite of one of the old gods when you were growing up?”
She held his gaze a moment, then turned and walked to the path leading to her house. “No. And that’s no secret.”
Behind her she heard the shuttle’s door shut and the electromagnets hum back to life. The hum faded as the shuttle moved down the road.
As Soma approached her front door, she tried to think of something interested that had happened at work as she dug for her watch in her purse, which she didn’t wear while working. She couldn’t find anything in her head to think of, but she did find her watch faster than normal. She pressed the watch face against the gearlock on the door and twisted, listening to the clicking of the tumbler magnets and the thunk of the deadbolt.
She shut her eyes, drew in a breath, then opened the door and walked in. She heard one of those cheesy adventure shows her girls loved playing on the radio in the kitchen. This one was about a little girl that defended her home town from dragons. Or transformed into a dragon. Or defended dragons from her home town. She couldn’t remember which, but she liked its music.
It wasn’t even a big deal, having Travis get on her case. It was tiny. She always let little these things bother her. Swinging the door closed behind her, she let out a sigh and dropped her purse on a chair.
Her husband’s voice came from the kitchen. “Has something been going on downtown this week? You keep coming home really late.”
Soma bit her lip as she walked to the kitchen, the radio getting louder. Alec was standing there, leaning against the island in the center, looking bored and annoyed. Sitting at the breakfast nook were their two daughters. The youngest, Melody, was doodling with an orange crayon in a coloring book. The oldest, Grace, was reading a book. Both were still wearing their school uniforms and both had their frizzy hair in stubby ponytails, which made Melody look like a miniature version of her sister. The cuteness of that thought did help calm Soma a little.
She brushed past Alec to get a glass from the cupboard. She felt him looking at her as she filled it with water from the sink and answer his question. “The chief gave a longwinded lecture because there’s a serial killer in Lieutenia. Has the public spooked.”
“Why are they bothering you about that? That’s seven hundred kilometers away.”
Soma pivoted around to face her husband. “Because he wanted us to be sure we knew how to answer people’s questions. The killer is driving the Lieutenia police mad and the media is eating it up.”
“It wasn’t my choice!” yelled the radio sitting on Melody and Grace’s table, then the show’s dialogue dropped back to more muted tones. Tense music was slowly building. Soma wondered how Grace was able to read with the show playing right next to her.
Alec mumbled something and walked over to look at what Melody was drawing. He looked down at his daughter but addressed Soma. “I guess it’s not as bad as a couple years ago. We only got to see you for maybe an hour every weeknight.”
Soma’s eye twitched. She took a drink from her glass as her forehead tightened. That wasn’t a good memory. “That won’t happen again.”
“It will if your chief actually is worried that a killer like that will show up here.” He snorted a chuckle. “You be thrilled to have a problem like that to solve.”
Soma, her grip on the cup tightening, forced herself to lower it to the kitchen island very slowly and gently. “Why do you say things like that?”
“No it’s not. I’m not a freak out for glory.”
“I didn’t say you’re a freak. Just…obsessive about weird things.”
“How is that better?”
“Look, stop turning this into something it’s not. I’m just saying—”
“I don’t like having murderers in our city. You may not be saying it, but you’re implying it.”
Alec shrugged. “Well, you enjoy spending time chasing after them more than being here.”
The room went silent except for the radio. Soma looked at her daughters. The older kept reading, as if she’d heard nothing. Melody kept drawing, as if she’d heard nothing.
Soma looked down. This kept happening. She kept having these stupid arguments. Apparently, they were so common that her children just pretended they weren’t happening. She was one of those parents now. She was turning their home, the place that was supposed to be safe, into a place where at any moment harsh, selfish words would be thrown out in anger.
She walked out of the room. She leaned against a wall and forced herself to breathe as she listened to the protagonist on the radio sob out a poorly acted complaint. “I trusted you. And you lied to me!”
She shut her eyes and clenched her teeth, but forced herself to breathe as strength drained out of her. She had to apologize. It didn’t matter who was right or who was wrong. She was going to go in there and make peace right now. She wasn’t going to be one of those parents.
She breathed more easily as she stood up straight and opened her eyes. Clearing her throat, she readied to return to the kitchen when she jumped at the sound of a CRACK. It came from in the kitchen. She ran back in there.
But no one was there.
She frowned. Nothing was out of order. She saw the book Grace had been reading, sitting on the table next to the radio.
“Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next episode of The Dragons of Angeles, releasing every Thursday morning data dump! Brought to you by—”
Soma turned off the radio, flooding the kitchen with silence. She looked out the glass sliding doors that lead to the yard but saw no one out there. She looked through the door on the other side of the kitchen, leading to the small guest suite. No one was in there. She turned back and looked at the kitchen.
“Melody? Grace?” She said the names louder, a bit of annoyance getting into her voice.
No one replied. She looked down at the orange crayon sitting on the coloring book. Melody had been coloring a heron with it. Soma stepped over and picked up the crayon.
She searched the entire house. The bathrooms. The storage room with their bicycles. The bedrooms upstairs. Alec had left his watch sitting on the nightstand, so she wouldn’t be able to find him that way. She checked the closets in the bedrooms. She checked the cluttered, messy, funny-smelling office that no one except Alec ever went into.
No one. Anywhere.
She ran outside.
Silence. It was late and a Tuesday and no shuttles were humming along right now. The sky was fading from orange to blue and she couldn’t hear any children playing outside.
She ran to a neighbor. They hadn’t seen anything. She went to another. They hadn’t seen her husband or her daughters. She went to another and another, systematically going to every house within two houses of her house. No one had seen anything.
Her forehead tight with frustration, she returned to her deathly silent home. She was hungry and needed to make dinner. Or she needed to ask Alec if he’d already ordered something delivered. Or she needed to ask what Grace wanted, because she was eternally picky. She couldn’t eat until she talked with them. With all of them. And she was tired. If she spent the whole evening running around looking for them, she’d be exhausted at work tomorrow.
She searched every room in the house again. Each time she went into a room she felt an odd expectation. She rehearsed in her head how she’d yell at them for hiding from her. But she’d only be upset for a few seconds, then she’d finally be able to relax. Another room, another blip of stupid, stubborn hope. Until there weren’t any more rooms left.
“Why would he run off without saying anything?” she said as she came back into the living room. The room didn’t answer back. She had been the one who was irritated during the argument, not Alec. He wouldn’t have snapped and taken off with the girls over that. It didn’t make any sense.
Silence continued. She still held the crayon in her right hand, turning it over and over and turning the inside of her hand all orange. She looked down at her purse and watch. She sighed and picked up the watch with her free hand. She tapped the face twice and held it up in front of her. “Emergency. Police Override. This is detective Soma Dan of Helison PD. I need to file a missing-person’s report.”
“How can you believe the Name creates people just to send them to hell?”
Susie frowned at Paul as she answered, “The book talked about that argument. People always try to use it. But it’s not like that. It’s just that if he knows everything that’s ever going to happen, then he knows that some people are going to go to hell. He knows even before they’re born.”
“I don’t like it.” Paul stood up and brushed sand from his shorts. So much for a romantic moment on the beach, very possibly leading to her going home with him. Today had gone so well, too. A great day, that seemed to be leading toward a great night, was a much bigger deal for the two of them than most people. He instantly regretted standing up, because now he couldn’t just focus on Susie’s face. Now looking at her meant looking at all of her, with just short shorts and a t-shirt on over her reclining figure.
Most couples fell for each other and had sex and then took it a day at a time from there forward. Then, when they’d decided they wanted to make it last, they’d have a wedding reception and work out the logistics of turning in their credit halves to get the fertility treatment. Then they’d have a child, maybe save up enough money to buy another treatment and have another. Life was all very straightforward and simple. Especially for a city like Lieutenia, with sun and beach and cool breezes available to everyone most days of the year.
But not for Paul and Susie. They were followers of Seven, servants of the Name so the first time they slept together would mean they were married. And divorce was nearly forbidden, so there was a lot of pressure resting on the decision to pull the trigger on that first night. So much pressure that, starting a week or so ago, after four months of serious dating, following two years of being friends, Susie and Paul had started discussing it.
Paul was on board. Susie was on board. But Paul was uneasy because Susie’s father didn’t really like him. Said he was too gloomy and irritable. Said a twenty-three-year-old should have higher ambitions than merely running a five-axis CNC machine at a watch shop. Susie would tell Paul about indirect, but decided statements her dad would make: “I’m sure Paul will be a wonderful husband for some girl someday,” or “Oh, Sue, I wouldn’t worry about all that. You’ll find someone who really knows you.”
Susie didn’t think much of these comments. She thought her dad was just being obnoxious. She trusted her dad. Paul did not. Paul felt family disapproval hanging over the whole situation like smoke from an approaching brushfire. The wedding reception that both families would be expecting one month after the marriage night might not be the time of celebration it was supposed to be.
Paul wanted to hear her say, “I love you and I’ll marry you no matter what anybody says.” He was very confident she would have said that tonight if this current argument hadn’t come up. But he was too stupid and stubborn to just say, “oh, that’s fascinating, my love” when she brought up theology that grated against his soul. No, he somehow had a stronger urge to clarify why he disagreed than to swallow his pride and take the girl home with him. Finally. Gloriously.
It didn’t matter anyway. She’d know he was upset and would pry it out of him. He tried to regather his thoughts. They were arguing over an old argument, apparently. Double-predestination, which she’d read about in a found-book. An ancient book on theology. From Earth, so that made it special. To her. He concentrated on making his tone casual: “It makes all our choices in life a tease. He should at least be as just as the Alephs.”
Still sitting on the sand, Susie rolled her eyes. “The Alephs. Mebar’s gods. We might as well be living in Babylon. All these false gods people believe in. Alephs, the TAW, Irse, all that nonsense.”
Paul frowned. “Most people don’t actually believe in all of those, other than the TAW. But they still get held up as ideals.”
Susie, facing the draining light to the west, shrugged. “All I know is what the Remnants say. And don’t worry, I still trust them more than some found book. They say that the one and only god isn’t some enlightened human who used hidden knowledge to rescue humanity, gain immortality, and let the tragic dead come back to life as monsters.” She snorted a dry laugh. “He judges the living and the dead, and he’s the only one who has a right to, because he’s just. And he’s good.”
Paul put his hands in his pockets and looked at his sandaled feet. “I wish I understood him better. Or that we weren’t missing so much of the Remnants.”
“There’s still enough.” Susie stood up and stretched. Paul watched her, transfixed by her figure and natural grace in the execution of such a simple motion. He thought about how friends laughed playfully when they found out he believed in the Name, one of the old gods, as if he was telling them he was a fan of a team that never made it to the playoffs. He thought about how difficult it was to explain the whole, “one time means marriage” to people. People who lived in a world where STDs had been eradicated centuries ago and pregnancy was deeply coveted.
But then Susie turned to him and smiled and all the thoughts were washed away. “Just remember. We don’t know who the Name will save, so we can’t give up hope. We try to save everyone. No matter how good or evil they may seem to us.”
Paul nodded, but found zero comfort. He knew Susie did, but he didn’t understand how. He wanted Susie to be wrong, but didn’t know how to prove that she was. The Remnants were very difficult to read and understand.
They stood there in awkward silence for a while, then Susie took his hand and they walked down the beach together. Her tone changed. “One thing’s for sure, though. There’s definitely evil in the world.”
Paul dragged a little behind, Susie’s hand feeling hot and soft in his. “You must have heard about the other killing.”
Her grip on his hand tightened. “She was from the neighborhood I grew up in. Thirty-one years old. In school to become a teacher.”
“Yeah. It’s terrible.” Paul looked at the dimming western horizon.
Susie nodded. They went along, silent, for maybe a hundred paces. Susie took in a deep breath. “I’m getting pretty tired. You want to meet up again tomorrow for coffee? Memory Bean is supposed to have a new band playing.”
The words killed his last bit of hope for the night. “Sounds good. I’ll walk you to the station.”
Paul had a sharp pain in his forehead the entire walk. He was fuming as they walked past a dark cluster of touristy beach shops closed for the night. As the road curved around and a handful of shuttle cars came into view, Paul wanted to ask Susie why having a book be written on Earth made it special. The book didn’t know about them. Then he imagined embracing Susie right there by a building and kissing her passionately in the shadow of a streetlight. Then he pushed that thought away as heat surged through him.
But instead he just walked along with her as they reached the shuttle station. Susie smiled and pulled her hand free and tapped her watch on the console next to the front-most shuttle car. She told the shuttle where she was going and got in.
She leaned out to kiss him, a light, soft peck on the lips. “I love you.”
She disappeared into the shuttle and the door closed before Paul could reply. The shuttle floated off down the road.
Paul was alone. His stomach filled with an unclear dread that something terrible was about to happen, possibly worse than going home alone, but that seemed unlikely. He ignored it and turned inland to walk toward his apartment in the cheap part of the beach district. The dread changed into anger toward himself. Dull, unfocused, anger that fed off of the spurned passion that was boiling inside of him.
Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he sighed as he looked up at the stars. In an hour or so, light pollution laws would kick in and all non-safety lights would shut off. More stars would be visible. Right now, only the stars behind him, the ones over the ocean, were bright.
He continued walking away from those heavenly lights into electric dullness. He cleared his throat and picked up his pace. He had some books he wanted to read when he got home, so he decided to let himself be distracted by that. He concentrated on the books, images of Susie and her voice on the edges of his mind, all of them laced with confusion and frustration.
“Excuse me,” said the low voice of a man off to Paul’s side.
Paul stopped, looking at a dark corner next to a closed sandwich shop. “Hm?”
“Could you help me with something?”
The man didn’t leave the shadow. Paul couldn’t quite make out what he looked like.
“Uh. It depends.” Paul took a step forward. He stumbled back as a black-shrouded figure lurched from the darkness and grasped him. As the figure moved and passed under a street light for a brief moment, it almost looked like his skin was dark gray. The man was terribly strong.
Paul was about to say something, but the man then brought a large, strong hand over his mouth and pressed down with so much force that his lips hurt from being pinched against his teeth. The man’s skin felt like cold stone.
Paul felt warm breath on his ear and heard the softly spoken words: “I need you to be very, very frightened, my friend.”
“You’re sure he wasn’t angry?”
Soma let out an indecipherable noise that was sort of a grumble, a rare occurrence for her, which was excellent evidence of how absolutely exhausted she was. She and Travis were on to their fifth shuttle station tonight. This was Circle Point Station, where five wide, cobblestone streets all converged at one point and a small park sat within the island of the central roundabout. Travis had been kind enough to come over during the night and help her search, even driving to her house to pick her up in his trike car that he only ever drove on the weekends down to the sea. She appreciated his selfless efforts, but now he was getting on her nerves. “I was the one who was angry! He was just annoyed. That’s it. That’s as far as you could take it. He was not angry.”
She walked a few paces away, then climbed up on top of one of the shuttles to get a better view. From here, she almost had a clear line of view down all five of the joining streets. Not that she could see much, with the low light hours in effect right now. Mostly just orange curb marker lights along the semi-gloss of the cobblestone and some widely-spaced, blue-hued street lamps. Apparently, a man and two young girls disappearing wasn’t due cause to override an ordinance whose only noticeable purpose was to make the sky prettier at night. Probably because no one really believed Soma’s family was actually “lost.” Whether they admitted it or not, Travis and everyone else helping Soma sided with the missing persons officer at her own department. They’d seen this happen a dozen times before, the officer had said.
She should know that, he’d said to her. She’d helped in similar cases before, he’d reminded her. He said that because he was an ass. The only cases like this she helped on were ones where the missing person was almost certainly dead. Her throat had filled with acid as she’d fought the temptation to slam the butt of her pistol into his nose when he’d said that.
At least, despite no one really believing her, the department had everyone who was on duty with a patrol quad out on the streets looking.
Travis walked up alongside the shuttle she was standing on and leaned against it. He chewed on his lower lip as he looked around. “Well. Just because he didn’t seem angry doesn’t mean he wasn’t planning something.”
“They didn’t make any noise.” Soma adjusted her long, heavy coat tighter around herself and folded her arms. It had already been cold when they’d started the search. “I didn’t hear the sliding door open. I didn’t even hear the girls get out of their chairs. They just vanished. I was only out of the room for ten seconds. Fifteen at the most.”
“It sounds like you’re trying to make a case for them poofing into thin air.”
“It’s what it felt like. I do have enemies, don’t I? They could have been kidnapped.”
Travis smiled. He looked up at Soma and caught her glare, which informed him that she didn’t appreciate his levity. The smile shrunk. He shrugged. “I don’t think any of the folks you’ve booked could afford to hire someone to kidnap your family. Even if they could send out a commission like that from a penal colony. As far as I remember, you’ve never worked in the narcotics or organized crime division. That’s where they have money and crazy friends. There isn’t a lot of money in good, old-fashioned murder.”
“Please do not talk about murder right now.”
Travis went silent and all humor left his face. They stood there in the dark and silence, listening to the buzz of some less than ideally functioning piece of electronics somewhere nearby. A streetlight or bad transformer in a shuttle’s circuitry. Soma couldn’t see anything. No one was out walking. No one was out doing anything.
She almost jumped as something broke the silence with a loud click and deep hum. A shuttle parked a few rows in front of the one she was standing on had come to life and taken off, summoned by someone somewhere to pick them up to take them somewhere else. A person going about their business, no care at all for what was going on with Soma. Soma remembered not having any cares about what other people might be dealing with. She remembered even helping other people with their terrible problems while not really having a care for those problems. Years and years of watching tragedy happen to other people.
“I think he was cheating on me.”
Travis stepped away from the shuttle and looked up at her. “Oh.”
She shook her head. “But he still wouldn’t do this. He wouldn’t just leave. Not with the girls, like this. He knows how mad I’d get if I didn’t know they were okay. They would have found some way to call me by now. Grace is too stubborn and too practical to let her father go this long without letting me know they’re alright. That’s really what it is. It’s not Alec. It’s the girls.”
Travis, still looking at her, nodded. “Yeah.”
She put her hands in her pockets and kept looking out over the streets. “Something very wrong has happened.”