Credence Foundation
Author:Marco Guarda

Chapter Six

A man’s polished white shoes walked along a spotless-white resin corridor, tapping steadily against it. A second pair followed suit, also white, also a man’s shoes. They added to the tapping, building up to a sonorous knocking.

As the shoes moved on, a third pair fell in stride; also white, they were smaller and rested on slender heels—a woman’s pumps. The knocking became a roll of drums.

Benedict, Trumaine and Matthews were revealed, walking side by side along a wide corridor at the end of which the believers’ chamber could be glimpsed.

Even if Benedict hadn’t lost any of his sparkle, there were a couple of wrinkles in his face Trumaine hadn’t noticed before.

“I’m sure you heard about the latest, dramatic developments in the matter, Detective. I regret to admit that we have lost a ship. I have no excuse for what happened and I shall take full responsibility for that, of course. Something we couldn’t foresee has happened in the believers’ chamber.”

“How could the Hibiscus go astray?” asked Trumaine.

“My guess is as good as yours. I’m afraid the parasite belief created by the crawler might have interfered with the Main Belief, causing a ripple that misplaced the ship.”

Benedict stopped all of a sudden and looked Trumaine straight in the eye.

“I hope you realize how dangerous this man is and how important it is that we catch him.”

“I’m perfectly aware ...”

Benedict opened his mouth to say more, but he thought again.

They kept going, approaching a gate in the distance which looked very much like a subway barrier.

Electronic turnstiles hissed softly, endlessly letting the believers in and out of the chamber. Most of those who had just finished their shift dragged their feet, squinted and yawned tiredly, barely deigning their fellows a nod of acknowledgment.

On the contrary, the believers entering the chamber looked content and as neat and as efficient as they could, dispensing cheerful nods left and right.

The turnover was continuous, with new believers constantly replacing those leaving in an orderly bustle.

Each time a believer walked in or out of the barrier, a large electronic signboard hanging above the turnstiles updated the number of the believers remaining in the chamber. The signboard also made for a clock. Right now, it showed two numbers: 493 and 10:15 PM.

Trumaine’s group arrived at the barrier, where they stopped.

A guard left his booth on the right and came toward them. Except for the tool belt he wore over his suit jacket, also containing a large taser gun, he looked like another believer. He bowed his head at Benedict only.

“We’ll need to give him a pass,” said Benedict, pointing at Trumaine. “I think one week will do.”

“Yes, sir,” said the guard, promptly.

He pulled from his belt something that resembled a stylish stapler, then rummaged into another of his belt pockets until he retrieved two metal disks the size of a button.

“This is your temporary pass,” said the guard.

He approached Trumaine, then put one of the disks inside Trumaine’s breast pocket, then slid the second inside his lapel, at the same level than the first one. The guard held it in position for a moment as the stapler activated with a soft bleep. The two halves clicked together, gripping through the fabric of the suit, very much like an anti-theft tag.

“You’re done,” said the guard. “The transmitter works together with the feature scanner embedded in the turnstile. If you change your jacket, or if you lose it, come back to me and I’ll give you a replacement.”

The guard stood aside, motioning for the detective to try the turnstile. Trumaine approached the barrier. Before it let him through, a light flashed in his face, taking a mugshot of him.

Only then did the turnstile door slide open with a hiss. It shut in silence behind him as he walked past.

Trumaine emerged from the turnstiles to find himself in the gallery giving onto the believers’ chamber. It developed over three receding levels that curved inward like the giant steps of an amphitheater.

An endless, orderly array of docking stations arranged for the couches lay on the outer lip of each level, behind a glass parapet that prevented the believers from falling into the gaping chasm of the chamber.

From time to time, the believers arriving from the turnstiles would move to the couch assigned to them. As soon as they sat down and rested their head on it, the couch activated, summoning long iron stems from the chasm. They rose from the abyss below the chamber, looking like the jointed, outstretched legs of giant spiders crawling from their cobwebs.

One by one, the spindly arms would then hook to the underside of the deckchairs, lifting and carrying them into the chamber, balancing them on their tips the same way waiters would do with a tray.

The stems delivered the couches to a preordained position in the mesh of the deckchairs already floating in the chamber.

In a similar way, when a believer had finished his shift, his couch would be automatically withdrawn from the chamber and, again, laid with mathematical precision to whichever level and docking position it had originally been retrieved from. Once the couch had been secured to its cradle, the stems would unhinge and return in silence to the bottom of the chamber, or move to pick up another believer.

The occupants of the just returned couches came to slowly, sitting up. Then, when they were fully awake, they stood, moving to the checkout gate.

Trumaine couldn’t take his eyes off it all, awed by the plainness and precision of the mechanism that was the believers’ chamber. Most of all, he was struck by the way both the stems and the couches moved and danced around with apparent ease, without hindering or crowding each other. Except for the soft snaps the stems made when removing or releasing the couches—which reminded him of old-fashioned manual typewriters at work—everything happened in absolute silence.

The gallery guard had returned to his routine tasks, while Benedict and Matthews, who got into the gallery through a service entrance, joined Trumaine in the contemplation of the chamber.

Trumaine pointed at the far corner of the chamber, where a selected group of about a dozen believers hovered in square formation, six feet above the rest of their fellows. It was the first time he saw them.

“Who are they?” he wondered.

“Meet our best believers,” said Benedict. “They’re trying to pick up any signal the Hibiscus might be broadcasting. Unfortunately, since the TSA has suspended all flights, they are now administered a blank feed. Without the support of the real feed, I’m afraid there is little hope that they might succeed. Well, at least, we’re trying ...”

He turned to Matthews, “Shall we go?”

“Of course,” she said. “This way.”

Matthews led them onward, to the first level of the gallery, the one which protruded the most into the chamber.

They passed the many empty cradles of the couches that were already in the chamber. Progressive numbers were assigned to both the couches and their cradles. They shone brightly from the white resin of the floor, where they had been painted in a contrasting blue.

They stopped at number 144, one of the dozen or so couches still docked on level one.

“Here’s our standard deckchair,” said Matthews, pointing at the couch with the palm of her hand.

“Through the transmitter embedded in the headrest, you will receive your feed. As Mr. Benedict told you, since the Transport Security Administration suspended all flights, believers are now administered an empty feed.”

“An empty feed?” asked Trumaine.

“Exactly,” said Benedict. “Except for the trance signal, no information of any kind will be sent to your mind. You will be alone with your memories.”

“This will expose me to the crawler?”

“You won’t consciously get any closer to him than this ...”

“Please, lie down,” prompted Matthews.

Trumaine threw a worried glance at the woman, then sat on couch 144. He pushed his forefinger into the padding, as if he were testing a mattress—it felt warm and comfortable like a bed that had just been slept in.

As he lay down, the deckchair buzzed to life. In moments, a lengthy arm emerged from the abyss beneath the chamber. Trumaine hadn’t noticed before because of the distance, but from up close he could see the lit eye of the laser-guided camera mounted on the top of the stem. He thought again that it resembled more a one-eyed monster snake about to take a bite at him than a spider’s knobbly leg.

It was a fleeting vision. Then the snake dived under the couch and, with a snap, hooked to the bottom of the deckchair; with a swish, it lifted to level with Matthews’s waist, where it floated lazily.

The woman tapped the pad in her hands with the same casual air as if she did it for a job, sending a wireless communication from her pad to the computer in the couch. The readout nested in the side of the headrest switched on, turning emerald.

Matthews looked up at Benedict with a nod. “It’s ready.”

“Good,” said Benedict, turning to Trumaine.

“The trance is a dreamlike state. Moments after you touch your head to the headrest, the transmitter within will send a low-frequency signal to your brain. It will cause you to feel relaxed at first then, after a few moments, you will fall asleep. You will sink quickly through all stages of sleep, until you enter the so-called REM phase. That’s when you will start to dream.”

“How am I ever going to tell if the crawler has entered my mind?”

“From little things: misplaced objects. Jarring words. Details that don’t match. Observe what you dream, let the details sink in. Find what truly belongs to you, single out what does not. Anything can betray the crawler’s presence.”

The couch jolted lightly, causing Trumaine to turn to Matthews with concern.

“The couch is still adjusting,” she reassured him.

“Aren’t you going to strap me in? I mean ... it’s a long way to the bottom of the chamber.”

Matthews curled the corner of her lips into something that could be a faint smile.

“The built-in circuitry is very sensitive,” she said. “It shifts your couch according to the movements of your body. I promise you won’t fall.”

“I wish I was that confident,” groaned Trumaine.

“There’s nothing to worry about, Detective. Really. It will be like falling asleep,” said Benedict. “At the end of the standard eight-hour shift, you will be returned to this same position in the level.”

He nodded to Matthews, who tapped her pad one last time. To Trumaine’s dismay, the deckchair rose and floated away. Past where Benedict and Matthews were. Past the glass parapet of the gallery; it glided toward the chamber like a launch making for the high sea.

Trumaine’s face had suddenly turned green. He was fighting hard something he had never openly admitted, not even to himself: his fear of heights.

The couch drifted into the tide of the seemingly colliding couches, arriving at a preordained position in the mesh.

As Trumaine reeled his head in, forcing himself not to look below, the emerald glow emanating from the couch headrest started to pulsate. The movements of the deckchair became slower and smoother.

At long last, Trumaine’s eyes closed ...