They were calling it The Gathering. The camp had sprung up seemingly overnight, filling with crowds of the curious, press and protesters, faithful followers touting gods both old and new. They had raised their symbols above the clusters of tents, flags and idols crowding a skyline already cluttered with news satellites and low-flying drones. A large metal cross had been erected beside the road, with candles clustered at its base, while beyond it a brightly-colored tube man raised its arms to the sky in a wild dance. The Gathering was part pilgrimage and part tailgate party, the evening air thick with the smoke of grills and cookfires, the sound of life and laughter as people settled in for the evening. Another day denied. Another day without proof. But most of those they passed seemed content to wait, to simply be in the vicinity of the miraculous.
Their caravan followed the narrow desert highway, once a little-used road to nowhere that was now the focus of the world’s attention. Samantha knew how lucky she was. First press access, a military escort – whoever’s ass her editor had kissed, they were pulling some serious strings. She hadn’t even been allowed to bring a cameraperson of her own. The proof that these people were waiting for… it would be up to her to find it, to relay back her experience, to find a way to put into words something that few living people had seen.
They passed the massive white tent of a Texas megachurch and a pack of leather-clad bikers passing out sandwiches to their neighbors. A Muslim man helped his son spread a prayer mat on the ground. Beside them, another boy whispered in the ear of an old woman. By her glasses and cane, she was blind, but there was a smile on her face as the boy gestured and described the scene around them.
A place like this, a time like this, it could be a recipe for disaster. At least that’s what Samantha had thought before getting on the plane. She had been to war zones, covered violent political protests; she had been sure that that was why she was given the assignment. The armored military vehicles escorting her dark-tinted SUV and the expressionless driver with the gun on his hip had confirmed her suspicions, but now that she was here… the atmosphere was like nothing she had ever seen. It felt almost like hope.
It made sense, she supposed. Their various faiths had already been rewarded, if the announcement was to be believed. Death – the inevitability of it, the grief, the fear, the human need to color the unknown with promises of eternity – is the one thing that unites all people, everywhere. Death was what had brought them here, to this once empty expanse of desert. Because death, it seemed, was no longer the end.
The crowd was growing thicker now, tents and parked cars crowding close to the road. More faces looked up as they passed, marking the progress of the dark caravan as it approached the gates of the inner camp. The local authorities had managed to establish a narrow perimeter before the gawkers had arrived in force, erecting barricades around the mountain proper. It had been a military installation, once, built during the Cold War. NASA had leased it for a time, taking advantage of the natural shielding to isolate cosmic radiation. A decade ago, it had been sold to one of the world’s largest communication conglomerates, but her research had turned up nothing since. Not until word had come out, not until a small team of scientists had released their findings and sent the world spiraling into chaos.
Some of them had paid with their lives. Word was that the facility’s owner, Caelum Worldwide, was complying with the investigation, that they’d opened their doors to the encamped authorities. As they reached the barricade, her driver rolled down the window and passed her credentials to a guard. He shouldered his rifle to inspect them and Samantha found herself scanning his body armor, noting the additional sidearm at his hip. She had seen guns amongst the crowd, too, not openly brandished, but there all the same. These people might be breaking bread together now, but how long could it last?
With a nod, the guard waved them through. The entrance to the facility had been up the mountain, but a new road had been cleared, metal ramps erected where the way had been impassible. The caravan rattled its way to the top, where her credentials were checked again. When the driver finally opened the door, Samantha checked her hair, settled her glasses on her nose, and stepped out onto the mountain. Below her, The Gathering spread across the valley, growing as more arrived to swell its ranks, the lights of the camp holding back the evening gloom. From this height there was no telling the faithful from the curious. A nice enough sentiment. She’d have to work that into her article.
Her escort guided her to the elevator that would take them into the facility below. Inside, the bustle was nearly as thick as it had been in the camp and Samantha saw at least two civilians for every soldier. Caelum and its CEO Malcolm Vanth might be cooperating with the authorities, but they were clearly maintaining their proprietary control. Rumor had it that they were already replicating the technology, even looking to patent it for public use. The fact that the breakthrough had been made on American soil was pure coincidence; EG had facilities all over the world, and those were just the ones in the public record. Hashing out control of the technology was going to be messy. She could just imagine what might happen if EG attempted to sell to foreign powers or private interests. Hell, some churches had deep enough coffers to join the bidding. Imagining any of them with direct access was… unsettling.
Samantha noted as much as she could as they passed, even though her escort set a brisk pace. When she slowed to catch a glimpse through an open doorway, one of the guards laid a hand on her arm and urged her forward. There were living quarters here, it seemed. Remote as the facility was, the original team would have stayed on site, isolated from the living world. Some of them had spent their last days here.
There was a story there, she was certain of it, but few in the gathering crowd were concerned about the circumstances, about what had come before. The world was a different one today than it had been a week ago. Of course, the truly important people – the politicians and generals, religious leaders and investors – had already made visits of their own. Samantha was the first member of the press to be allowed inside. She was here to represent the public, the people gathered below and those around the world. They only wanted to know if the claim was true, if technology had finally caught up to faith, if the living really had been contacted by the dead.
These people, this small team in a distant corner of nowhere, had accomplished the impossible – completely by accident, if her briefing was to be believed. Samantha had her doubts about that as well but, as her escort stopped before the secure double doors, she was overwhelmed by a sudden rush of fear. There was a window built into the thick steel, but it had been broken out and boarded over from the inside. A jagged bit of glass still clung to the frame and she focused on that, breathing deep to steel her nerves. Whatever was behind this door would change the world. But first, it would change her.
She had read the official explanation, the technical overview with its talk of agitated particles and shielded glass, written the jargon of engineers and quantum physicists. The machine essentially produced an energy field, suspending irradiated particles that could be manipulated by what the report referred to as a “will,” what the faithful gathered outside might call the spirit or the soul. With the input of an unnamed “catalyst,” a specific will could be drawn into the energy field, manipulating the charged particles to manifest its residual self-image. The report had used the awkward metaphor of a train station where, with the right ticket, any departed soul could catch a ride back to the world. They might be made of radiation and trapped behind glass, but a glimpse of the other side was more than the world had ever known.
When the doors swung open, her eyes went wide. The machine was already active, the towering glass tube alive with light. Technicians scurried on the periphery, but she barely noticed them. The figure behind the glass was luminescent, shifting as it turned to watch the work going on around it. For one mad moment, she could almost believe that the people gathered outside had the right of it, that she was gazing up at some angelic apparition, come to reassure the world that death was not the end. Those opaque eyes fixed on her, then, the image flickering as it smiled.
“Samantha Mayhew. I’m a big fan. Or, I suppose you’d say, I was.” The spirit spread its hazy arms. “Welcome to the Terminus.”