She was beginning to miss the sun. Within the mountain was a world all its own, isolated and empty. If two days in this place was enough to make her stir-crazy, how did the others feel? What had it done to Charlie? He had died here, already entombed.
She was being melodramatic and she knew it. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Charlotte turned her phone over in her hands. Maybe she just missed Facebook. There was no signal here, not in the kitchen, or in the supposedly safe zone of the showers. Heavy as things had been around here, she could use a little passive social interaction, some sign that the world was still carrying on outside.
Gus had sealed up the ceiling, but her neck still prickled with the feeling of being watched. It was the walls, she realized, the clippings and diagrams. Charlie’s things. She could have taken Gus up on his offer to find another room but, somehow, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to leave the place empty. There was something here she needed to face. Just not tonight.
Pulling on an oversized sweater, she ran a hand through her hair and stepped out into the hall. It was empty, no one in the kitchen or the lounge. If Charlotte was sticking around, she might as well learn what she could of the place, familiarize herself enough to find her way out.
She found her way back to the elevator with only a single wrong turn. There had to be another way out, a stairwell for emergencies, at least. Did old government bunkers have to follow fire codes? There were certainly no exit signs and the only door she dared to try was firmly locked. Eventually - unavoidably - Charlotte found her way back to the lab. There was light reflected in the windows, not the glare of the machine, but something warmer, welcoming.
When the door swished open, she saw that Elias’s altar had grown, the mismatched artifacts of her father’s life now ringed by half a dozen candles.
“Doctor Sachs isn’t going to like that.”
Elias was alone at the computer - truly alone, the tube that had held her father’s image was dark and dormant. “Given the circumstances, I would say I’m the least of her worries.” He turned in his chair and gave her a tired smile. “Can’t sleep?”
“‘Given the circumstances….’” With a shrug, she nodded to an empty chair. “Mind if I join you?”
“Of course not.”
With Doctor Sachs’s defensiveness and Gus’s constant riddles, she was glad it was Elias. His quiet reverence had a way of setting her at ease and, of her father’s team, he was the only one who had been both welcoming and honest.
“Your father is still here, you know, no matter if we cannot see him.”
“Yeah, people always say that.”
He laughed. “But in this case, we have tangible evidence.” He punched a few commands on his keyboard and the tube hummed to life, clouding with what she now recognized as the infusion of charged particles. Immediately the pulse began, giving it a luminous cohesion, the same shifting fractal haze that she had seen when she first stepped into this room. “Are you familiar with the Law of Conservation of Energy?”
“Vaguely. Energy’s always constant, right?”
“That’s the general idea. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed. And human beings, of course, are composed of energy. What then is death, but a transformation?”
“Is that the preacher talking, or the particle physicist?”
He grinned. “Can’t it be both? Truth, I’ve found, lies somewhere between faith and the evidence of our limited senses. Science can augment these senses, allow us to look more deeply into the mysteries of creation. It’s why I chose the path that I did, what ultimately drew me to your father’s work. He had the resources to quantify the miraculous like never before and, more importantly, he wasn’t afraid to make the leap.” His eyes strayed to the light, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Whatever it is that comes next, I believe your father stayed behind to guide us. His energy never left this room.”
“Yeah. We all saw the ghost.”
Elias shook his head. “In a natural transition, that energy should have gone elsewhere. Or at least dispersed back into the world, if you’re not inclined to believe in the afterlife. Those who claim to have seen spirits, who have encountered them without the benefit of containment and analysis, usually cite a reason for the aberration.”
“Like unfinished business.”
“We needed proof, and so the proof he became.”
Charlotte sank back in her chair. “I thought you were going say it was me, the unfinished business.”
“The dead are no less complex than the living. Moreso, most likely.” He gave her a comforting pat on the arm. “He had plenty of reasons to return.”
They sat in silence for a time. Charlotte watched the candles, the erratic dance of the flames dimmed by the stead pulsing of the light behind them. “Doctor Sachs… Veronica. They were sleeping together, weren’t they?”
“It’s why she hates me.”
He laughed at that. “She doesn’t hate you. I suppose it would be a bit awkward for her, but not because of that.”
His face fell, his eyes straying across the room. “She was the one who found him. They’d fought, the night before. Ronnie blames herself.”
“You said he was electrocuted.”
“Yes. But he’d been working late. Alone. Normally, she would have been with him. Perhaps, she thinks she cost him his focus. Perhaps she could have done something. Obviously, she blames herself. And to lose someone else, so soon…”
“After her husband.”
He looked surprised. “She told you about that?”
“It slipped. I didn’t get much.” Charlotte sighed. “She was at the funeral, you know. Called Charlie a ‘fucking idiot.’”
Elias laughed. “That sounds like their sort of affection. I’m glad she went. I told her it would be good for her.”
“And yet you didn’t.”
His cheeks colored, making him look boyishly guilty. “We had already picked up the signal. Augustus was attending for Mr. Vanth. Someone had to stay behind.”
“Keeping him company. Just like now.”
“I’m something of a night owl. And it stands to reason that if someone were truly reaching out from beyond death, a friendly voice might bring them some comfort in the void.”
“You loved him too, didn’t you?”
Elias gave her a wry smile. “I came across a paper of his as a student. I had never seen anything like it, a bridge between miraculous tales of my grandmother’s faith and rigid structure of the sciences. It was the missing piece that I hadn’t even realized I’d been searching for. From there, I read everything that he had published, even when he was relegated to fringe websites and theoretical curiosities. I knew that I had to meet him.”
“And when you did?”
“What is it you’re fishing for? What tawdry dramas is that mind of yours imagining?” He chuckled. “If you’re asking if I was jealous of Ronnie’s relationship with your father, the answer is no. It was never like that.”
They lapsed into companionable silence, watching the shifting light. When Charlotte spoke again, her voice was hushed. “Earlier… you said I was lucky. You really think that?”
He smiled. “Who hasn’t dreamed of speaking with the dead? Of having one last chance to say goodbye?”
“I spent most of my life avoiding Charlie. I’m not sure I’m the one who deserves that chance.”
“Which is why you must take it. For the rest of us.”
“No pressure, huh?” She shook her head. “If you had a chance… to talk to someone you lost…?”
“Who would it be?” With a quiet laugh, he stared down at his hands. “Not my father, certainly. I never met the man. And my mother, last I heard she was alive and well, traveling the Great White North with her latest paramour.” He shrugged. “You are his anchor, you realize. The bonds of blood are essential to the connection, but so is love, the desire to breach the great divide. You give Charlie reason to return. I’m afraid my own dead would feel no such pull.” He stated it without emotion, with the exhaustion of old resignation.
“Your grandmother? The one who wanted you to be a priest?”
He spread his hands in a helpless gesture, taking in the room with its monitors and machinery. Charlotte, though, nodded to the candles, to the little altar he had built.
“Maybe this is your second chance, too.”
Elias chuckled. “Spiritual counselor to a dead man. Not that your father ever much listened in life. Oh, he indulged me, loved nothing more than to debate the untapped potential of the physical in philosophical terms.” His smile was fond, but he shook his head. “If the aim of a priest is to shepherd his flock into Heaven, I’ve failed quite spectacularly.”
“Well, I like talking to you, if that means anything. Everyone else… well, you’re the most normal one here.”
He smirked at that. “You’ll have to forgive Ronnie. And Augustus… he considered Charlie something of a surrogate father, did you know? Him and Mister Vanth. Gus has been here longer than any of us.”
That gave her pause. “I visited Charlie’s work once, back in high school. Gus said he was there. An intern. But I don’t remember him.”
Elias blinked, his expression unreadable. “Ask him, if you’re curious.” Then he grinned. “And surrogate family or no, there’s nothing wrong with taking comfort in others. This can be a lonely place. I’ve seen the way the two of you look at each other.”
Charlotte felt her cheeks warm. “Now who’s fishing for drama?”
With a shrug, Elias turned back to the computer. “Would you like to speak with him? With Charlie? I could give you some privacy.”
She sighed. “I know it’s, like, a big deal and all that. But, honestly, I miss my mom.”
“Would you like to call her?”
Charlotte shook her head. “No signal, remember? Even up on the mountain, my cell doesn’t work.”
Glancing toward the door, Elias stood and squinted at the windows. “Mine does.” He produced a blocky device from his pocket, thicker than a normal phone, as if one of the clunky old models had been updated with a modern screen. “Technically it’s a satellite phone, one of our prototypes. You can use it if you like.”
“Do the others know you have that?”
“I would prefer if we kept it between us, as a favor.”
It was late, but there were always nurses on staff. Even if her mother was sleeping, even if she couldn’t do more than listen, the nurses could at least give Charlotte an update. It would be nice to know that the world was still spinning on beyond these walls, that her mother was still well - or at least no worse.
She accepted it with a grateful smile. “Thanks, Elias.”
With a little bow, he moved for the door. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Charlotte sank back in her chair. Still the machine hummed, the shifting light inside the tube sending shadows dancing across the walls. Her mother was a phone call away, her father at the other end of a significantly more complicated connection. With a sigh, she turned her back on the light and dialed the number for the hospital.