Credence Foundation
Author:Marco Guarda

Chapter Twenty-Two

Gromer smiled awkwardly and patiently as he waited for Trumaine to inspect his documents.

“Is anything wrong with my boarding card?” he asked suavely.

Seemingly, he was listening to some broadcast: a plug was inserted in his right ear, from which a thin, twisted cord departed, reaching into the small of Gromer’s back.

“What’s that?” asked Trumaine, puzzled.

He reached out his hand, about to pull the earplug, when Gromer spun quickly. A feral growl had now replaced the polite smile and there was a large fist where his hand had been.

It hit Trumaine on the nose, so hard it made him wobble. Gromer kicked and shoved the detective to the floor, then darted toward the gate.

He attempted at breaking through it, trying to reach the safety of the shuttle that rose beyond it, but the boarding officer saw that—he pushed a button on his console, sealing the gate.

Gromer slammed his fists on the shutting slab of metal to no avail. With a homicidal glare, he retraced his steps back to the officer, but when he saw that Trumaine was coming to, groping for his taser, he thought better of it and broke into a run.

Trumaine wiped the blood from his nose, at the same time leveling his gun, but in the time it took him to do that, Gromer had already climbed up a crowded staircase leading to the upper gallery.

“Damn!” he swore—he couldn’t get a clear shot.

Trumaine scrambled to his feet and set to chase.

Gromer jostled a couple of passengers out of the way, arriving in the gallery. He hustled along, jumping over trolleys, chairs and tables, desperately dodging passengers and bystanders. Once in a while, he would throw a worried glance behind him and sneer evilly—Trumaine was nowhere to be seen.

The crooked smile didn’t stay on his lips for long; it died when he saw Trumaine emerge from a second staircase, ahead of him, taser at the ready.

“You’re under arrest on suspicion of murder,” said Trumaine, approaching slowly.

His nose, which had by now stopped dripping over the front of his suit, had started to swell.

Gromer acknowledged he was trapped with a scowl; he slunk to the gallery parapet, then looked back.

“Where do you think you’re going!?” shouted Trumaine.

Gromer clawed at the parapet, licking his lips, uncertain about what to do next ...

Trumaine bared his teeth. He had never been so close to getting the crawler and he had no intention of letting him get away; at long last, a million unanswered questions were going to be addressed.

Gromer’s legs buckled from under him and Trumaine knew exactly how it must feel, looking for a way out when there were none.

Trumaine approached when, to his amazement, Gromer took a deep breath and ... vaulted over.

“NOOO!” shouted Trumaine.

He reached over, leaning beyond the parapet—he saw Gromer plummet for at least fifty feet. He expected to see his head explode against the floor any moment now—

But when Gromer hit the ground, nothing happened to his head ... because he just disappeared.

“What the hell—”

It took Trumaine a while to realize what was going on.

“Damn, this isn’t real!” he snarled.

He leaped in turn ...

Trumaine awakened in the sea of believers.

The pain in his face was gone, his nose was its usual size again, and the front of his suit had never been as immaculate. Only his head throbbed a bit, but it must depend on the fact that he had awakened suddenly from the feed, he thought.

He peered around him, at the believers floating about in their deckchairs, mindless of the worries of the world.

What was of Gromer? Trumaine scanned the believers in the chamber until, from the tail of his eye, he caught a slight movement—one of the believers had stirred and was now sitting up on his couch.

It was Gromer all right.

As if he had heard in his mind Trumaine’s thoughts, Gromer turned his head to meet the stare of the detective—they held each other’s gaze for a moment, studying their opponent.

The real Gromer wasn’t less agile than his counterpart in the feed, because in one swift, fluid movement, he stood on his feet and leaped from his couch—landing on the next one as neatly as if he was a cat then, again, using the second couch as a springboard, he made another jump, trying to outrun the detective to the safety of the gallery.

Trumaine, too, stood on the shifting deckchair, riding it as Gromer did—as if it were a surfboard. He studied the oscillations of the next couch, timing his leap, knowing it was the gaping abyss of the chamber for him if he missed.

He jumped ...

His feet hung above the blackness of the chasm for a moment, then landed squarely on the next deckchair.

The couch shifted under him, adjusting to the added weight, forcing him to compensate with his hips and knees not to fall. He looked down at the believer lying between his feet, but he didn’t seem to mind the freeloader—he just kept snoring aloud.

Trumaine jumped again, and again. He was getting the hold of it now, chasing after Gromer in a crazy race of jumps. But moving faster had one major drawback he hadn’t considered, it was the added momentum. Now, every time Trumaine’s feet impacted on a couch, it jerked wildly to counterbalance the displacement, risking sending its sleeper over into the chasm. Also, keeping the balance was getting more difficult for the detective; at times, the synthetic padding of the couch was slippery under his shoes and more than once he had landed on a believer’s limb.

Anyway, he kept going—Gromer was closer now.

Trumaine leaped again.

At first, his foot got hold on the next couch—but then it slipped. Trumaine would have plummeted, if he hadn’t reached out with his fingers, grabbing the side of the couch ... He held on for dear life, sweating buckets, getting his breath back, happy to be still alive.

Then he gasped—the oblivious believer lying on the now overbalanced couch, a young woman, begun to slide toward him. Her legs were already dangling in the void and, soon, the rest of her would have followed.

Trumaine groaned and lunged for her, grabbing her around her waist—

Straining not to lose his grip on the deckchair, he swung one leg over, straddling it. Feeling the sweat run down his neck for the effort, he finally hoisted the woman back on her couch. He checked her to see if she was fine, but she had never awakened from the trance.

He carefully got to his feet ... and was gone again.

Trumaine was catching up with the fugitive; with one mighty leap, he grabbed onto the same couch Gromer had also landed, preventing him from jumping again.

It was too much weight for the deckchair, already occupied by a heavyset believer—it started to jerk madly, trying to shake them all off.

In moments, Trumaine and Gromer found themselves hanging from either side of the couch.

Gromer realized with horror that his sweaty hands were gradually losing their grip; he looked up in despair.

“Help,” he squawked.

Trumaine swung his body, trying to reach around the couch and grab for Gromer’s arm, at the same time keeping an eye on the oblivious believer, making sure he wasn’t sliding off the couch, too.

He managed to claw at Gromer’s wrist, but then his fingers slipped and he swung back. Trumaine tried again, reaching out his hand, but missed. He swayed once more then, just when both Gromer’s hands let go, he snatched him by the wrist.

Gromer’s weight was entirely on Trumaine’s arm now and the detective couldn’t lift him—Gromer had to get on the couch all by himself.

Gromer’s free hand fumbled for the metal lip of the couch, but it was beyond his reach. He tried again, almost got it, but then his fingers slid. Tired and dispirited, he watched in horror as the knot that were their hands began to tear apart and, at long last, split.

Gromer dropped with a quick, indecent screech that ended with a muffled thud and with silence.

Trumaine glanced down, peering at the floor of the chasm, then looked away.

Gromer was dead.

Trumaine heaved himself on the deckchair.

With a long stride, he stepped on the returning couch of an awakening believer, which brought him back to the gallery.

When he climbed down from the couch and set foot on the solid floor of the first level of the gallery, he was exhausted—decidedly, couch-jumping wasn’t for him.

He straightened his tie and his jacket, flung his hair into place, then walked to where the stalled group including Benedict, the gallery guard, Matthews and Faith were.

“He’s dead,” he said gloomily to Faith.

She let go of Matthews without a word.

Matthews coughed and massaged her throat where Faith had clutched it then, without looking back, she shuffled her feet past the guard and behind Benedict.

Trumaine and Faith exchanged glances; she looked worn out and sick. He had failed her and she was going back to prison, waiting for the sentence that would condemn her for life.

“I’m sorry ...” was all he could say.

Faith didn’t say anything, she just let the guard take her away.

Trumaine kneeled next to Gromer’s squashed body.

He had climbed down the maintenance ladder and had reached the floor of the chamber. Seen from below, the metallic stems that moved the couches around looked like the oversized key levers of an ancient, gigantic typewriter, flipping in and out of their black cradle, ticking and clacking without rest.

A spotlight lit the floor of the chamber: from up close, it wasn’t slick and polished as it looked from above, but uneven and covered in splotches of grease and oil drops.

Gromer lay prone in the filth; his limbs stuck out from under him at weird angles, the same way a broken puppet’s would—in the impact, his face had melted with the floor in a sticky goo.

Trumaine moved even closer.

Something stuck out from Gromer’s right ear; he reached out for it, retrieving the same earplug Gromer had worn in the feed.

Trumaine unraveled the thin wire departing from it, coming to a boxlike device hanging from the back of Gromer’s belt—he studied it in wonderment.

The only witness who could nail Benedict was dead. Even if Faith could read Benedict’s mind, it would have little weight in a possible trial; it was her word against Benedict’s. More, Faith had only Trumaine on her side, while Benedict could count on a long list of influential members from both the TSA and the Federal Authority—it would never work.

He searched the body, retrieving an ID card and the silvery ticket Gromer had shown the boarding officer in the feed. Trumaine reread Gromer’s name and his destination; was Gromer pulling out of the game through the feed? he wondered. Was it possible that if enough believers had seen Gromer embark for Pegasi II he would be flushed there directly from the feed, disappearing from both the chamber and Credence without a trace?

Trumaine stroked his chin and grunted—according to what he had learned in those few days, he could.

At hearing approaching footsteps, Trumaine looked up to see a man walk out of the shadow, emerging into the pool of whiteness cast by the spotlight.

It was Benedict.

“Troy Gromer will be missed,” he said. “He was an excellent believer.”

The two confronted each other in a frozen silence.

Benedict knew from Trumaine’s venomous glare what he must think about him.

“You and your accomplice killed the Jarvas,” said Trumaine.

“I can’t prove it, but I’m sure you did. You and your accomplice killed Jimmy Boyd, too. And now, because Gromer is dead, Faith is going to get a life sentence. If only I realized sooner that there were two crawlers ...”

The last sentence was addressed more to himself than to Benedict.

Benedict curled his lips into a hideous grin and studied Trumaine as if he was a peculiar specimen.

“Gromer a telepath? That’s hilarious. If he were, I would have found Ms. Alveraz without your help, Detective.”

Trumaine stood, balling his fists. “You always knew about Faith. Gromer told you about her from the very beginning. You only needed me to frame her with Jarva’s murder, a murder she didn’t commit.”

“Oh, really,” tutted Benedict, flashing his shark grin.

“You knew that Jarva had found a way to use Credence for his purpose; bring back Raili from death. He and Faith had agreed to work together to accomplish that and, unbelievably, they succeeded. With great spite of all Federal rules, Raili was relived. But, somehow, you saw her. That drove you mad, you needed to punish Jarva for his arrogance—that’s why you killed him! But you also had to fix the abomination that was Raili—that’s why you killed her!”

Trumaine showed Gromer’s crumpled cord.

“Gromer wore this. I bet he never took it off, did he?”

Benedict shook his head and shrugged, as if he didn’t know what Trumaine was talking about.

“Oh, you know what it is—it’s a shield. That’s why Faith couldn’t get into Gromer’s head; somehow, this prevents it. It was Faith who first realized he must wear one, since she couldn’t read his mind. Well, she found him all the same: this thing works pretty well in the anonymity of a crowd, when faces mean nothing. It certainly works well in the chamber; but after a while, when one gets used to seeing the same faces, you begin to recall them. Faith remembered Gromer’s face, but she couldn’t read the mind that was behind it. How could it be?”

Trumaine made a meaningful pause.

“Do you wear one, too? A more sophisticated model, maybe, one you can keep in your pocket?”

Benedict didn’t say anything, but it made no difference—Trumaine knew he did.

He showed Benedict the silvery ticket for Pegasi II.

“And what about this? Gromer was this close from leaving from the feed, wasn’t he? A few minutes more, and he would be gone forever; nobody would have ever known about his existence.”

Benedict exhaled in a long and tired sigh.

“It’s an ingenuous story you have come up with, Detective.” He turned his head and glanced down at Gromer’s squashed body. “What do you say, Troy? Is our detective right?” Again, he looked up, at Trumaine. “Pity,” he said in a querulous, mocking voice. “He doesn’t look like he can say much now ...”

Trumaine set his jaw, angrily; he looked like he was going to punch Benedict in the nose any moment now, but all he did was curse him under his breath.

Benedict grinned nastily, reveling in victory—because he had won ...

Then something weird happened, and the grin on Benedict’s face was replaced with amazement:

A vibration was suddenly shaking Benedict’s hands, as if they weren’t real, but seen in some broadcast with a problematic reception—they fizzled and crackled as he lifted them in front of his disbelieving eyes ...

Benedict’s marvel reached a new peak when he realized that the vibration was crawling up his forearms and down, toward his belly; in moments, it extended to his shoulders and his waist and, soon, it would swallow his head, too.

“No!” was Benedict’s horrified comment.

Then, as if he had just remembered that Trumaine was still in front of him, he glanced at him ...

The same thing was happening to the detective—he had also begun to flicker and to fade.

“What the hell is this—”

Before Trumaine could finish his question, he and Benedict disappeared from the bottom of the believers’ chamber.