The following is the first chapter of Book 1, which will be finished and released soon (already on Chapter 17 of 22!). If you’d like to be a beta reader, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
THE DARKNESS OF MATTER (synopsis): When 14-year-old Sophie Li’s physicist father rips a hole in space-time, she finds herself the accidental host of a Mystery whose presence arouses the old gods, government agents, and magicians sending her on the run. But the more she discovers, the more she finds out this could be the risen Grail.
“Mom,” said Sophie. “You’re not going to the moon.” She picked her way delicately through the wreckage of the living room towards her mother, sitting in the midst of debris like a lost explorer. Under Sophie’s keen eye, Helen made a half-hearted attempt to reach for her research binders, but lost focus and knocked over her coffee mug, scaring a tiny tropical lizard off the porch and into the stands of hibiscus outside.
Sophie rolled her eyes. “I’ll get that, mom. You stick to your suitcase.”
Helen said forlornly, eyeing the stacks of clothes and accessories, “I can’t decide what to take.”
“Just take what you need, mom. You’ve done this before a gazillion times.”
“But it’s a two month trip this time, and the location is really remote. It’s going to be hard to get anything.”
Sophie patted her knee “You’ll survive, Mom. And it’s beautiful. You’ll have a ball.” She’d seen the photos: pristine greenish waters, breakers rolling up on coral beaches. Hardly a penal spot.
“You’re right.” Helen smiled ruefully. “It’s going to be amazing. What am I worried about! Joe sent word this morning that they’ve approved my request for additional scanners on the submersible! Finally! Some good news. Maybe this time we’ll be able to get some good high-footage video.”
“Wish I could come.” Sophie had meant the words to be sarcastic, but the words slipped out more wistfully than she had intended. Helen turned swiftly.
“Oh, honey. I wish you could too. But you’ll have a good time in Boston. Your father misses you.”
“Dad? He’s all wrapped up with his new research project,” Sophie objected. “You know how he gets.”
“I do,” Helen acknowledged; it had been one of the principal reason for their divorce. “But I really think he’s getting somewhere this time. Harvard is a fantastic place to be for that sort of thing. He’s got the brains, they’ve got the facilities. He’s right on the verge of a breakthrough. What he’s found—well, I can’t really talk about it but if he’s right, it would be a game changer.”
Sophie grimaced. “That makes it even worse. He’s going to be totally focused on his research. You know that and I know that.”
It never ceased to amaze Sophie that her parents, having concluded their long and often tense marriage, seemed to have completely forgotten their mutual animosity. At times they were practically a mutual admiration society.
“Well, I’m sure he’ll make time for you. And I’ll have periodic email access. I’ll write. Come on, that’s a major improvement! Last time I could barely call out, remember?”
“I guess.” Sophie mustered a weak smile. “Come on, let’s get you packed. Three piles, remember. Clothes, accessories, research. Essentials only.”
“Snacks?” Helen suggested hopefully.
“And snacks,” Sophie affirmed.
The warm, clean smell of Helen’s shampoo engulfed Sophie like a cloud as her mother hugged her. “I’ll think of you every day. Don’t think I won’t.”
“Even in the dark? With the creepy-crawlies?”
“Especially in the dark!”
Despite the late hour of their flights, the airport was crowded with holiday travelers, tourists and native Singaporeans alike. Sophie’s flight clocked in an hour ahead of her mother’s. Helen leaned in to hug Sophie at the gate. “Love you.”
“Love you too, mom.”
“Say hi to your father, okay? See if you can keep him–calm.”
Sophie frowned. “What do you mean?”
Helen shook her head, clearly regretting her words. “Just stay clear of anything strange. Use your judgment. I love you.”
A faint drizzle was coming down, causing the runway lights to streak across the wet surface as the aircraft taxied into position. Sophie settled into her seat and tightened her seatbelt, leaning her forehead against the cold glass of the window as the stewardess went through the safety announcements and the captain welcomed everyone onboard. It seemed unreal to be heading back to America after nearly a year away. They hadn’t gone back at Christmas or Easter after all—Helen had been swamped with work at the university in her new research position and Sophie hadn’t wanted to go without her to a situation whose terms she no longer quite knew. Her mother’s strange, farewell words merely added to her disquiet
Everything she’d known growing up there was gone. The house, the city, the school, the friends. All that had fallen away in the wake of her parents’ split and the subsequent fallout as, released from the tension of their marriage, they’d leapt apart like magnets to the research posts of their desire: Carl to cold Boston and Helen to the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the earth, leaving behind red roofed building she’d grown up in in Seattle—home, she reminded herself with a twinge of savagery.
“It won’t be the same,” she said out loud, then felt stupid as the man next to her turned.
“Sorry, nothing,” she muttered. Which about summarized her feelings. She sighed again and turned to the window, thrusting back the faint and nebulous cloud of anxiety in her stomach.
There was a tense pause, filled only by the escalating whine of the engines, and then she was thrown back into her seat as the aircraft launched itself off the earth, the lights at its wingtips glowing valiant and small against the gathered vastness of the sky.
Carl was waiting for her when she arrived in Boston, cramped and sore from the long flight. She recognized him from a distance, waving and smiling with happy enthusiasm. As usual he wore a button-down shirt with rolled sleeves, paired with faded khakis. He scooped her up and hugged her as he always did and for a moment it seemed as though nothing had changed; she felt like a child again, breathless with delight, the air whooshing from her lungs. Then he put her down and laughed and she realized that he had indeed aged, soft touches of grey in his hair gathering territory, but that it was alright, and he was still Carl after all, the father she remembered.
“Sophie! You’ve grown,” he commented in the soft Taiwanese accent that he had never completely lost. He hefted her suitcase easily. “That all you’ve brought?”
“You’re short,” Sophie teased him. “And I’m planning to shop, so I thought I’d travel light.”
“Great. You can do some shopping while you’re here.” Carl smiled happily and Sophie decided not to tell him that the bargains in Singapore were much, much, better priced. “Come, I’m parked over there.”
It was a beautiful day, the clouds heaped like marshmallows in a deep blue sky. They drove with the windows down, enjoying the sun and the sight of the Charles River sparkling beneath the Bunker Hill bridge. The light cool air, so different from the hot humid weather of the tropics, whipped through her hair. Sophie glanced at her father, trim in a polo shirt behind the wheel. In his forties, he had achieved a kind of timeless weathered look, naturally tanned and slim, a little white peppering his hair around the ears and the slight darkening of stubble on his chin. He looked intellectual and a little abstracted, disheveled—the perfect caricature of a genius professor which in fact, he was.
“You tired?” Carl shouted above the wind.
“No,” Sophie yelled back with a smile. “I slept on the plane. Let’s go eat.”
They drove to her favorite gourmet burger joint on the corner of Harvard Square. As usual it was packed with a mixture of summer students and tourists snapping photos of the university’s historic grounds. Sophie’s stomach was growling as they slid into the little booth. She knew exactly what she wanted. “Cheeseburger with sweet potato fries, no mayonnaise. One ice tea please, no sugar.”
“Your favorite,” said Carl happily. “I remembered. How’s everything? It’s so good to see you. How’s your mother?”
“She’s fine. Excited,” Sophie added.
“I bet. It’s always been her dream, you know. To plumb the depths of the ocean. Her one constant love.”
“Well, it sure wasn’t you,” said Sophie acerbically. The divorce had only been finalized the year before, but their marriage had been on the rocks for ages.
“How about you, Dad? How’s work?”
To her surprise, a shadow passed over Carl’s face. He grimaced and put his Coke down. “Not so great. The department head and I don’t agree on some things. Mededev thinks that my current project is foolish.”
“What project is that?”
“Dark matter. The nature of the universe.”
“Sounds scary.” The comment was casual, and she was surprised to see Carl grow serious at once.
“You have no idea. It’s could be to the key to the universe, to life as we know it. An astronomer in the 1930s called Fritz Zwicky first hit on its existence. He likened it to a glass paperweight surrounding a butterfly, keeping the galaxies in place. No one has been able to actually detect dark matter though, even though it comprises up to eighty percent of the universe according to our mathematical calculations. Imagine–everything we can see, observe, is just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what’s lurking down there?”
Sophie sucked on her straw. She wasn’t sure wanted to know.
Ignorant, Carl continued, “Well, it turns out that plenty of people are interested. Among others things, it’s hypothesized that dark matter could produce fusion energy, a virtually unlimited source of power. You’ve no idea how many calls I go since starting this project. The government for one. And the private sector. Anyway, to get back to my story, the project wasn’t getting anywhere. One lead after collapsed. Until one it dawned on me: music might be the key. You know how when set a guitar set next to a tuning fork: if the tuning fork is set at the right note, the guitar strings will start vibrating too?” Carl was an enthusiastic electric guitarist in his spare time, playing with a group of middle-aged buddies on the scientific circuit whenever they met up at seminars. It was one of the hobbies that Helen had had first been amused, then annoyed by. “Well, I figured that if I could create the right sequence of frequencies, perhaps I could get a response from the dark matter. That would be incredible breakthrough in identifying the basic structure of the universe. Mededev thought I was crazy, but I tried anyway. I tinkered for six months with no results. I was starting to give up, to admit that Mededev was right. So close, it was driving me crazy. Then I got hold of a sample of unbihexium. Did Helen tell you about that? No? Just as well. It’s classified stuff—until last summer, when Helen went down in the Chelonia on the test dive, it was just a theory. Unbihexium is the one hundred and twenty sixth element in the periodic table. It contains the biggest and heaviest atoms of any element. Well, Helen told me about it, and I arranged to borrow a small sample on behalf of the university from Wood’s Hole. I just had this gut feeling, you know?”
“I guess.” Sophie wasn’t one for wild guessing.
“And just like that,” Carl snapped his fingers, “when I played the frequencies, the instruments started picking up shifts in gravity and electro-magnetism. As if there was a ghost in the room. As if the universe was singing back to us.”
“Of course,” said Carl in astonishment. “How could I let an idea like this slip? Galileo didn’t let the Church stop him. Curie died for her art.”
“But the thing is,” Carl shook his head, ignoring his food in frustration, “I’m out of unbihexium and I haven’t been able to duplicate the effect since then. And my career is hanging in the balance. Mededev found out I was using the grant money I’d be given for another project and accused me. My case goes up for review at the end of the next week.”
His face grew dark. “The university thinks it’s a waste of time. ‘A foolish obsession’. They want to shut down the whole damn project. They accused me of appropriating funds even, because I used the grant money from another project to temporarily cover the costs when Mededev blocked some of my requests. The key to the universe and they’re fussing over pennies! Someone even suggested what I’m doing might be dangerous. Playing with unknown forces, that sort of thing. Good heavens, how is science supposed to progress with that kind of attitude? You’d think we lived in the medieval ages.”
Sophie sighed. She wiped her napkin. It sounded like a mess. Then again, it wasn’t the first controversy Carl had been embroiled in, and he’d always managed to come out on the right side. “I don’t think you should have taken the money but I think it sounds like an amazing project,” she said firmly but gently. “And you know what? There’s nothing I’d like more now than a shower and a nap. Why don’t you finish your food and we’ll get the bill.”
She remembered Carl’s apartment with fondness from his last visit, a cozy one-bedroom walk up with polished wood floors and exposed brick walls and a large bay window where she could curl up and read. It was the second year that he’d rented it, and though apartment still bore a faintly transient air, as though holding its breath as to whether this tenant would stay, it had taken on a comforting solidity.
Sophie set her bag down in the living room, where Carl had made up the futon for her, and yawned. “I’m about ready to pass out.”
“You look it,” said her father, pulling the sheet too and smoothing it to. “I wish you had your own bedroom.”
“I don’t mind,” she said, and she didn’t, really. She’d always thought the living room the nicest room in the whole apartment. She laid out her clothes and went to get showered in the bathroom, where a display of rose-colored hippopotamus-shaped soaps brought an involuntary smile to her face; hippos had been a running joke between her and father when she was small. Through the wall she heard the phone ring, faintly, followed by a strange static crackling that must have come from the radio…a wash of noise more than anything else. Goosebumps rose on her arms despite the muffling effect of the water. Then it ebbed and she concentrated on rinsing off, grateful to be on dry land at last. And it was nice, too, she had to admit, to see her father.
She emerged to find Carl tugging on his socks.
He jumped, looking guilty.
“Nothing, nothing really. I was wondering–since you’re going to sleep—if you mind me slipping out for a bit.”
“Where are you doing?”
“Over to Lillian’s. My musicologist partner. The dark matter sequence—something’s happened.”
Something in the way that Carl said the woman’s name alerted Sophie. “Everything okay?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Well, not really. I’d better go over there immediately.” He looked worried and distracted.
“Can I come?”
Carl looked startled. “Well, sure, but aren’t you tired?”
“I’m okay. Let me just grab my clothes.” She changed quickly into jeans and a fresh T-shirt. She could hear her father through the wall: “…okay if she comes? Yes, I understand…sure, no problem. All right, see you soon.”
It only was a fifteen minute drive to Lillian’s house in Somerville. The scent of damp summer earth and leaves filled the air. As they drove, Carl filled her in. Lillian, he said, was a musicologist, was an artist-in-residence who performed and composed, a single mother with an autistic son who’d inspired her intense interest in music therapy. “We’re also, um, seeing each other,” he ended in a rush. “I’m sure you’ll get along great.”
We’ll see about that, thought Sophie. Carl’s taste in women was eclectic, to say the least.
They stopped in front of a small brick house. Light fell from the stained glass windows on either side of the oak door, illuminating a footpath and bevy of stone gnomes nestled into the grass. The air smelled fresh and cool, green and blue by turns with hints of brown and ochre, so very different from the hot, complex air of the tropics. Carl, to her dismay, had a key. “Hello?” he called, holding the wine as he carefully opened the floor.
There was no answer. As they stepped over the doorstep, Sophie felt a short, sharp shock coming up through the floor. It vanished at once but not before she let loose a little yelp of surprise that turned Carl’s head, a questioning look on his face.
Sophie shook her head in annoyance. What on earth was the matter with her? “I’m fine. Where’s Lillian?”
“She must be in her studio. This way.” He clumped down the steps to the basement.
Sophie lingered on the landing. She felt an inexplicable reluctance to follow him down.
“Dad?” She peered over the railing, fighting down panic when she couldn’t see Carl. Then her eyes adjusted and she picked out his lanky figure with relief, rapping on a pale green door surrounded by shadows, which flew open with a bang.
“Carl! I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you. Thank god you’re here. And you must be Sophie.”
Reluctantly, slowly, Sophie came down the stairs. Lillian, all angles and awkwardly thin, extended a tentative hand. “Come in,” she said, “That is if you don’t mind–?”
Sophie looked around, impressed. The basement had been transformed into a state-of-the-art recording studio. One wall was occupied by a digital audio workstation, complete with a mixing console and multi-track recorder. A booth, walled off with glass, took up one corner. “It’s impressive,” she said, and meant it. Inspite of herself, Sophie found herself warming to the woman. She wasn’t sure yet how she felt about her–and guessed Lillian felt the same–but there was something disarming about Lillian’s shy awkwardness, her blunt lack of grace.
“Jacob did this?” asked Carl, looking at the mess of lines snaking across the computer monitor.
Lillian nodded. “He deleted the backup files too so I can’t track the changes. I can’t believe it. He knows he’s not allowed in here.” She seemed near tears.
Carl said, “I didn’t know he could program.”
“Neither did I.”
“Where is he?”
“Hiding in his room now.” She managed a wan smile. “I tried to get him to talk—no use.”
They peered at the screen. A queasy looking mass of wiggling worms, red, green and blues, dominated the screen.
“Well,” said Carl, and Sophie could he see he was striving to stay calm, “why don’t we just try it out? Sophie can serve as the subject.”
They both swiveled to stare at her. She found their stare unnerving. “What are you trying to do?”
“We’ll hook you up to the sensors and play the simulation,” said Carl. “See how it affects your brainwaves. And then we’ll analyze it against previous recordings. With luck, Jacob won’t have made any serious changes.”
Lillian touched Sophie’s arm. “It’s a temporary affectation. The only reason Carl and I aren’t suitable subjects is that we’ve been exposed to the simulation multiple times, so our brainwaves can’t be used as a pristine baseline. We need someone unexposed.”
Carl was looking at her expectantly. Sophie shrugged. “Sure, why not.”
She let Lillian settle her into the soundproofed glass booth with the headphones secured on her ears. . Inside the booth it was perfectly quiet. She could see them both perfectly through the glass. Lillian gave a thumbs up and depressed a button on the computer.
She was completely unprepared for what came next. A tidal wave of white noise broke on her consciousness. Not music; sound, rather…a whispered jumble of noise with no discernible pattern or harmony that nonetheless tugged irresistibly at the mind. Rain pattering—grass shaking–traffic passing–the slow groan of rocks falling to pieces over the centuries—a tinkle of shimmering glass…the sounds of the world itself, tilting around its access moment after endless moment.
Like a deep sea ocean wave, unstoppable, innocuous, a breaker of sound rolled through the wall. It was less a composition than a distillation of pure essence, a confusion of white noise that hinted at meaning, catching the busy brain’s attention and guiding it into a moment of pure existence, a joyful meditation. Opening the mind to new vistas; making and remaking the world to a realm of bliss…
Up in his room, Jacob crouched in the corner, quivering. She had come. She was down there, in the basement, with the music. Everything was coming together. The work he’d been doing over the past months, learning the computer program secretly when his mother wasn’t looking, had finally been put to use, crude though his attempts were. The music had been working in him since the fall, working in his dreams, spilling into consciousness. It wanted to get free of his mind.
Carl’s simulation had been crude at first, but the algorithm had rapidly matured, faster than Jacob had hoped. Each time he heard it Jacob felt renewed hope and need. The melody started something pulsing in him, something he couldn’t control. Changes of mind and body stronger than the effect of his meds.
And now, the girl.
He’d smelled her coming up the garden path, a distinct, warm smell like peaches and dirt approaching. His senses had grown sharper over the long winter. A good smell, a clean smell. Clean earth. Gray sky. Earth needed cleansing. Water to wash it away.
As she was, she was clay to be formed, soil to be shaped. A perfect medium for the algorithm to work on. Innocence on the cusp of change, at its most receptive to change.
He hunched, waiting. The voice had told him it was possible.
Even so, he was unprepared.
“Sophie! Sophie, are you alright?” said Carl, anxiously.
She gazed at him brightly, blankly smiling.
The planet glowed blankly in a space devoid of stars. The remains of a burned-out star orbited behind it, shedding no light. Shattered rocks that might have been some-time moons littered the space between. The entire universe was quiet, seemingly holding its breath, its heartbeat crippled by a vast and paralyzing dread.
Bit by bit the light of the milky planet began to fade, accompanied by a vast swelling of sorrow, anger and fear that rippled outwards from its surface through space. Sophie held her breath.
Cracks spidered across the surface of the planet, sending shattering the harmonics through the pattern of the universe which shivered and fractured in sympathy. The breathing of the universe grew jagged, faltering under the pain of the planet’s destruction, billions of sentient lives sending up anguished rage and hatred before the final annihilation, a tangible miasma of dark energy hurtling upwards.
And in that the terrible swirl of energy, Sophie glimpsed something take shape. Something hidden within its depths, shrouded, but with a terrible potential of destruction. Something that laughed and hissed and chuckled Veangeance. Something that drew strength and glory from the darkness. She quailed before its dreadful might, knowing that if it so much as noticed her the weight of its regard would shatter her puny mind.
A pure mote of gold darted through the darkness, pursued by a tornado of hate. A last note of hope, a pure vibration. It swung straight at Sophie, leaping with the desperation of a target.
The transition was absolute. One moment there was silence. The next, an ocean of pure vibration surrounded Sophie, weaving through every particle of her body, infusing it with a climbing crescendo of energy. For a moment Sophie felt as though the universe turned to pure golden shining light, a divine vibration. A feeling of bliss, contentment and gratitude for being alive. She saw a multitude of dimensions glittering through one another like layers of cellophane; innumerable beings darted along them
The darkness rippled. Sophie shrank back as it bent to find her. Then, she sensed the vortices of the universe closing in around her with effort, closing the chasm just in time. The smouldering planet became opaque, then disappeared completely, along with the view of the terrible Thing. She blacked out.
When she came to she was back in her body, fuzzy and disoriented. Dimly she heard voices talking, panicked and low. From the corner of her vision she could see Lillian and, alternately, Carl, bobbing up and down. Her head and body seemed frozen, too heavy to move.
“Sophie.” Her father cradled her anxiously. “My God, are you alright?”
“Let’s take her upstairs,” said Lillian.
Together they carried her up the stairs and laid her on a sofa. Lillian held a glass of water to her lips and Sophie swallowed gratefully. The cold water felt good against her flushed skin. She wrapped her fingers around the clear glass, feeling its weight in her hands, the smooth cylindrical shape of the vessel as the world resumed normalcy.
Carl said worriedly, “How are you feeling? You’re warm. Burning, in fact.”
She gazed at him. Her head felt light, expansive as a balloon, bright and quivering and full of raw energy, as if some part of her had just been plugged into an electrical current. As if a channel had opened somewhere, a vital connection made. The thought made no sense at all. “I’m okay,” she said softly. “Better than okay. Better.” Which made no sense at all. She sat up, putting the glass carefully on the side table and laughed from sheer giddiness of living. “I don’t feel jetlagged at all!”
“She seems alright,” said Lillian to Carl. “Her pupils look normal. Her face looks bright.”
Carl looked unconvinced, but thoughtful. He gazed at her. “You do look rejuvenated. As if you’ve just had a long sleep.”
The adults exchanged glances.
And then Sophie saw the angel.
It glowed in mid-air, soft and brightly luminous. She gazed at it, profoundly contented with the rightness of it all. Slowly it descended, flushing into skin and blood as it burst into the human world.
“Sophie,” said Lillian, her words echoing weirdly in Sophie’s addled skull. “My son. “Say hello to Sophie, dear. Jacob, this is Carl’s daughter.”
The angel-boy stared at her like a frightened animal from the steps. Sophie’s first thought was that he wasn’t a person at all—a fish, perhaps, transformed into a man; an eagle, trapped in a boy’s body. Golden eyes, pale skin an almost deadly shade of white like a mushroom, dark hair, a mole on his cheek. Despite the curious connection that she felt, she could read nothing in his expression, neither warmth nor affection nor hostility. Then their hands touched; she felt a brief shock, gone instantly. Jacob backed away up the stairs with a low plaintive noise in his throat and disappeared.
With an immense slow weariness that spoke volumes, Lillian made shift to move; Carl touched her shoulder instead. “I’ll go. Just stay with Sophie. You sit and pour us both some wine, how’s that?” He went up the stairs after Jacob without waiting for an answer, leaving Lillian with Sophie in awkward silence.
Sophie tried through the fog in her mind. “Dad said you’re a musicologist?”
“Yes, yes, that’s correct,” Lillian spoke in a grateful rush. “I study music and its effect on people. The right tones can have an incredibly beneficial effect on our health. I’m hoping that someday I can figure out a way to reach Jacob.”
There’s nothing wrong him, Sophie thought bemusedly. It was hard to concentrate through the faint buzzing in her ears but it seemed profane to talk about Jacob in that way. This is no place for a beast. He should be out in the wild—in a forest, with his kind, tracking the blood scent.
She shook her head against the drone in her head and tried to change the subject to something more normal, more manageable but nothing came to mind. Her limbs felt cold and hot all at once. She felt tired and jangly and bright all at once, like a new penny shaken too many times—metaphors that didn’t make sense.
I must be getting sick, she thought. Some sort of cold, or flu. Yes, that would make sense.
“Dad,” she said when Carl reappeared. “Can we go home? I’m feeling better.”
Her father nodded. He said to Lillian, “He’s alright now. I think you’d better go to him. And I’ll take Sophie home. She needs rest.”
“Of course,” said Lillian, looking relieved. “Good night, Sophie. It was lovely to meet you. I hope I’ll see you soon. Feel better.” She dropped a kiss on Carl’s cheek with a quiet familiarity that unsettled Sophie more than a display of passion would have.
“Good night,” said Carl.
“Good night,” Sophie echoed as she stumbled over the doorsill. Somehow she made it to the car and up the stairs back into bed at the apartment through a bone-crawling exhaustion. Still floating, she barely registered the medicine Carl gave her. As she closed her eyes, an image flashed before her eyes with sharp clarity: the universe shattering, and the single glowing shape of a golden cipher floating free. Then darkness came down and she fell into glorious oblivion.