Soma exhausts mundane methods of search and must turn to the unusual. Paul learns about the afterlife…sort of.
Soma felt cold. Not just emotionally. It had been three days since her family had vanished. Three days with zero leads. Now she was finally, possibly, about to get some progress. First she had to find her way through chilly, stone hallways that were almost a millennium old, built for aesthetics instead of convenience or comfort.
Helison University was packed full of young people, some with rich parents, others who had earned the right to come here on merit. Soma had grown up with neither avenue available, so despite living her whole life in Helison this was her first time on campus. It had taken her twenty minutes of fumbling around the huge property and asking shy eighteen-year-olds where the College of History was before she’d found the building. Now she was ten minutes into trying to find her way to the president’s office.
Finally, she found a stained wooden door with a plaque showing “Dean of History.” She opened the door and found a young man with perfect bone structure sitting at the receptionist desk. His skin almost seemed to glow. He looked up at Soma and smiled. “Detective Dan?”
Soma nodded again and walked past him and to the door on the far wall with printing on a window that took up the top half of the door: “President Viktoria Akhmatova.” This all felt like the beginning of a Philip Marlow radio show, just with the genders all switched. Would President Akhmatova be leaning against the side of the window, slatted light cast through blinds across her face? While she wore a fedora and smoked a cigarette?
Soma pushed through the door and found nothing like that. The room was warmly lit and the president was a somewhat overweight woman, probably in her fifties. She was looking through a news article on her pen reader, her face lit up by the glow of the projected panel floating above the reader.
She noticed Soma and set it down, the screen flashing out of existence. She smiled and stood up and extended out a hand. “Detective Dan.”
Soma took the hand and tried to match the firmness of her grip. The president’s hands were large and easily out-compressed Soma’s. “President Akhmatova.”
The woman smiled. Soma had practiced saying the name on her way here. She knew whatever this woman was offering would be expensive, so best to get her in a good mood right from the start.
“Please, just call me Viki.”
“Viki. You probably…and you can call me Soma.”
Viki let out a short chuckle as she sat back down on her chair. She gestured toward another across from her desk. Soma sat down.
“What brings the police to my door?” Viki’s smile was relaxed. She had no fear, which unsettled Soma, who was used to people being at least somewhat uncomfortable whenever they had to speak with her when she was working. But this woman knew she was a cop and didn’t seem to mind at all.
Soma cleared her throat. “I’m not here for work. I need help, and a friend said you could point me in the right direction.”
Viki’s eyebrows went up, then her lower lip stuck out slightly. “Well, how can I help you, then?”
Soma’s hands were shaking as she pulled out her pen reader. She set it on the desk and the screen glowed to life, showing a photo of Alec. Soma flicked the projected image and the photo swiped away to be replaced by one of Grace. She swiped again and that one was pushed away by a photo of Melody.
Soma had her eyes on the screen the whole time she did this. She looked up at Viki’s face, which was still relaxed, except between her eyes. Soma drew in a long breath through her nose and cleared her throat. “My family disappeared three days ago. There’s been no sign of them anywhere.”
Viki’s expression transformed from welcome to curious. “Okay. Seeing as…you are the police, I can assume you’re not exaggerating that last statement.”
“No. I’m not. We have zero physical evidence to go on. No witnesses.”
Viki leaned in toward the photo of Melody. “I’m a dean of history. I’m curious why you think I can help.”
Soma’s eyebrows went up. “I’m curious as well.”
Viki’s eyes squinted as she looked at Soma. A long moment passed before she folded her hands and set them on her desk. Her back straightened. “This is what I’m seeing. There’s a police officer in my office, suggesting that I could find information on three persons that have vanished. That either means I’m suspected of being involved, or that I have connections that I can utilize to help find them. Correct?”
Soma nodded. “Yes.”
She nodded back. “So, if I admit to either of these things, to a police officer, I put myself in an awkward position. Now, there is a chance that this police officer is also a terrified mother and wife, who honestly needs my help. In that situation, what do you think this mother and wife could do in order to appease my worries?”
Soma looked around the office for the first time. She noticed that half the walls were covered in shelves. Most of the shelves had books on them. Some had baseball memorabilia. Photos of players. Signed baseballs. One shelf had a collection of bobble-head dolls, all wearing the same uniform. Alec was into baseball. He would have known which team they were, possibly who each of them was. Soma returned to looking at Viki. “I don’t know.”
Viki shrugged. “There is one thing I could do. I could offer you help in a way that is entirely non-illegal.”
“That’s an odd way to describe something: Non-illegal.”
“It is!” Viki smiled and stood up from her desk. She moved to a shelf with non-baseball items, which Soma hadn’t taken notice of yet. There was a spyglass, a sextant, and a sail-ship in a bottle. She took the spyglass down and turned back to face Soma. “Finding the right way to describe things can be very important.”
“I suppose. I guess if there was something that should be illegal, but wasn’t, it might fall into that category.”
“Or!” Viki pointed an index finger at her as she sat down and set the spyglass on the desk, standing it straight up on its big lens side. “Or, something that isn’t quite quantifiable either way.”
Soma immediately remembered what Travis had said when he’d given her Viki’s information. About separating the spiritual from the strange. Or the very strange. “Alright. What’s the spyglass do?”
Viki set two fingers on the eyepiece side and pressed down. “This can help you. Possibly. But it is very expensive to get it working.”
Soma was unnerved. Partly because none of this made any sense. Partly because it most definitely confirmed that Travis was telling the truth when he said this wasn’t just some psychic nonsense. This was something else. This woman knew exactly what she was talking about and knew what she was offering.
“How can it help me?”
Viki shrugged. “It will let you see a person, no matter where they are.”
Soma frowned. She had said it was expensive, so she couldn’t be talking about shekels. “I don’t have a hundred fractions on hand.”
Viki picked up the spyglass. “I’m not some scammer, Soma. It really does cost that much to make this work. Almost just to buy the raw materials to activate it, because almost no one is cultivating them here. That’s not the cost of giving it to you, either. It’s only so you can borrow it and use it. On one person. So, you’d probably want to decide which of these three you want to use it to find.”
Soma picked up her pen reader and stood up. “I’ll have to get back to you.”
Paul sat with his back against the wall opposite the door. The door in a room with values and gauges that seemed to be designed for tracking his vital signs. Vital signs that said he was dead.
To his left was the wall of gauges. To his right was a nearly blank wall except for two buttons at waist level. He hadn’t dared touch anything, though. He’d been here for at least a few hours, and didn’t want to do anything but sit and hug his knees and try to not go crazy. Of course, a few hours sitting in a corner was wonderful compared to an entire day hanging from chains in the basement of a serial killer.
Still, there was a serious question bothering him. About where exactly he was. He mumbled to himself as he looked at himself: “Why would I have my bloody clothes on if this was heaven?”
Paul jumped to his feet and banged his shoulder blades against the wall behind him. A child’s voice had come from out in the hallway. He could hear footsteps getting louder. He looked at the doorway, watching for whoever had spoken.
A young girl entered. Or, maybe a boy. It was hard to tell, but maybe just because of the weird lighting. She, or he, had very dark olive skin and wore colorful clothing. She was smiling as she came up and stood in the center of the room and held her hands behind her back. “Hello Paul. Sorry I’m late. I kept you in stasis for a couple days, but still had a few things to do after you woke up before I could make it here.”
“I’d ask how you know my name.” Paul cleared his throat. “But, for some reason it’s written above the doorway.”
She nodded. “My name is Irse.”
Paul felt light headed. “Irse? As in…the soul guardian? The goddess of the five senses? The one parents tell their kids about, so that they do the right thing when no one’s looking?”
“I’m the original inspiration for those stories, but I don’t do anything to children, good or bad.”
Paul leaned back against the wall. “If I hadn’t just gone through what I just went through, I’d think you were screwing with me. But…a few hours ago someone hit me in the head with…wait, two days? That just happened.”
“You’re a very strange situation, but that’s just a happy coincidence. I only had a moment to pull someone out of the preyvede queue while the Alephs were investigating an accident, but I had something else to take care of before I could talk to you.” Irse walked over to the wall of gauges. She folded her arms and looked over them as she spoke. “That man who killed you has been causing us a lot of trouble lately. I think he’s trying to break things, but the Alephs don’t agree. Either way, he’s forcing us to make more preyvedes than we’d like.”
“Preyvedes. Like, what he talked about. Ghosts.”
“He was bonded to a preyvede. That’s why he was so strong, why he was able to change his skin into that funny color and texture, and why he could hear your sub-vocalizations. Though that last one was a bit of a cheat. I’ve never been a fan of those wasted conditions.”
Paul took a few steps toward her. “I am…very confused right now.”
She looked at him and smiled. “You know, this would be much easier if you’d grown up on Pan.”
She walked to the opposite wall. The one with the two buttons, two little circles like elevator switches. She looked at them and reached out a hand to one, then stopped. She smiled again and turned to Paul. “I’ve been going too fast. I apologize. Let’s start over. How much do you know about how Mebar was created?”
Paul frowned, then awkwardly folded his arms. “I…believe in Seven. My family went to gatherings where we’d read from the Remnants. The Name created the universe.”
Irse shrugged. “I’m not talking about the universe of the old gods. I’m talking about Mebar.”
“That’s…just what they call this star system, right? Humans think they’ve overthrown The Name just because they were able to terraform Prometheus. That makes them think they’re the new gods.”
“No.” Irse smiled and held her hands together in front of her.
Paul waited for her to explain, but she just stood there silently. He tried to think of something else to say. “Was…Prometheus not settled by humans after they left Earth? After some disaster?”
“That’s partly true.” Irse held up a finger. “But you’re thinking too small. They didn’t just leave Earth for Prometheus. They left the entire universe for Mebar.”
“What?” Oddly, this was the first thing she’d said that he understood well enough for it to really throw him for a loop. “That doesn’t make any sense. You can’t leave the universe.”
“You should know the stories.”
Paul lifted a hand, as if holding something up. “The ones they tell kids? The same ones they tell when they’re talking about you rewarding kids for not lying to their parents? Those are just fairy tales.”
Irse waited silently.
Paul lowered his tone of voice. “Ones about people finding out ‘hidden knowledge of the universe.’ And destroying it by accident. Or, madness. Then…some saviors calling themselves the TAW became gods so they could build a whole new universe.”
Still Irse waited, not moving. Not speaking.
“Nobody believes that. Not really.”
Irse’s eyes widened just a tiny bit. “What else is in that story?”
Paul paced away, going over to a corner by a narrow, tall stack of gauges labeled “AUGMENTATIONS” and had all zeroes running top to bottom. “I don’t know. They created you because human souls were getting lost in an ocean in a portal world called Threshold. Then they put all the souls in big tanks and you made sure that the soul would stay connected to the body. It’s…bonkers.”
Irse looked down at the two buttons on the blank wall. She pressed one. The wall sunk down into the floor, revealing a glass window. The white room took on a deep blue hue as more of the window was revealed. Paul’s mouth fell open as more of what lay behind the window was revealed. He took a step toward it, then sat down. “No.”
Through the window was a tank of some dark liquid. And, floating and glowing in that liquid, was a monstrous figure of neon blue. A figure made up of millions—or billions—of tiny points of light. It had a huge head, with big eyes and giant lips. The hands were nearly as large as the head. The rest of the body was there, shriveled and horrible.
Paul had seen something like this before, in high school. It was the sensory…something. Something that started with an “h.” “Hum” something. A representation of how much of the brain is dedicated to each part of the body. But that wasn’t what was horrible about it.
Irse nodded. “That’s the real you. Floating in the ocean we call the Essesin. The body you’re in right now is just a loaner, a copy of the one that was just murdered. You’re here partly because you were supposed to be resurrected as a stone preyvede in Pan. But, there are currently too many stone preyvedes. One more would upset the balance. In fact, there are too many people alive in Mebar altogether. The Essesin is overcrowded.”
Paul found himself on his feet, walking toward the glass. He pressed a hand against it, finding it cold. He looked up at the monster that was apparently him, twice as large as he was over here in this “loaner body.” All his arguments with Susie. All his worry about The Name’s true character. Now he finds his soul suspended in some ocean and watched over by this strange girl.
He took in a deep breath and then breathed out onto the glass. It fogged up. “What are you going to do with me?”
“Because you were murdered tragically, having your life taken unfairly, you’re going to get a second chance. That’s not in question. But, because there are too many stone preyvedes, and because of another tragedy that has directed the Alephs’ attention elsewhere, we have an opportunity. I’ll send you to Pan and give you all the strength augmentations that a stone preyvede would receive. You won’t receive any of their changeling abilities, but in return, I won’t fog your memories. And you’ll be able to blend in better.”
“Why would you fog my memories?”
She shrugged. “It’s standard procedure whenever someone is resurrected as a preyvede. Often so they can work on rehabilitating without having the trauma of their first life distracting them. It’s also so they won’t miss their home as much. But, for you, I think it would be better if you kept your memories clear. It will help you do a favor for me.”
“A favor?” Paul turned away from the glass and looked at her. “What kind of favor could I offer you?”
Soma was chasing her partner through the back offices of their police station. He was carrying a thermos of coffee and moving fast, possibly to get out a back door, but Soma was catching up.
But instead of going outside, he went into a small conference room and went to stare at a chalk board. He sipped his coffee as Soma came over to him.
“Right now, I don’t have the luxury of being able to care about what happened between you and Alec. I’ll be angry at you later, but right now, I need to know if you have any other connections.”
“What’s wrong with Viki?”
“I don’t have a year’s salary in fractions just laying around. Especially not for a gamble to see if his magic spyglass will actually work.”
“I’m surprised you went at all.” He kept himself from looking at her.
She leaned in close. “My kids are missing. They may be in some monster’s basement. I don’t care what I have to do anymore.”
He finally turned and looked her in the eye. He leaned back against the board.
She sighed. “You’re going to get chalk all over your jacket.”
He shrugged and took another sip of coffee. “The only other contacts I have left are psychics and nut-jobs.”
“What kind of nut-jobs?”
“The kind that say they can talk to other worlds in their sleep. All they have to do is drink this nasty-tasting swill. Some of them say that they’ve been able to talk to Alephs.”
“Alephs.” Soma cursed under her breath. “What does it say about me that I’m more willing to try that out than to talk to a psychic?”
“That you have personal experience with psychics.” He took another sip of coffee.
Soma looked at his thermos. “Where do I get the nasty-tasting swill you talked about?”
Travis reached into his pocket and pulled out a glass vial, filled with a yellow liquid. He looked at it first, then held it out to Soma.
Soma looked at it, then at Travis, then she took it.
He stepped away from the wall and headed toward the door. “I had a feeling Viki might turn you off. She can be a bit of a cutthroat sometimes.”
“Wait.” Soma looked at the vial in her hand, then at Travis just as he reached the door. “How should I take this?”
He stopped in the doorway. “On a full stomach, with a good chunk of time to rest and recover afterward. And wine for afterward. Lots of wine.”