“Gravity is the only force known to exert itself across the extra dimensions.”—D.G. Eckert, Ph.D., California Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Physics
Twelve Years Prior to Anomaly
The eruption caught the town off guard. There was a festive atmosphere at first, people grabbing cameras and dancing in the streets. The mood quickly turned when the pyroclastic flows began to incinerate the hillside communities, barreling down on the horrified population like a roiling specter of death. Those who couldn’t drive were doomed. No cover was sufficient to save them. Then, a second eruption flared. This time from the south, a long dormant volcano sprung to life, eliminating the chance of escape even for the ones in vehicles. An entire region destroyed in a fury of ash and terror.
Like champagne corks popping off in a row, the ring of fire lit up the year like a hellish festival of lights. Unlike seismic events, these came unattached to the usual volley of undersea megathrusts or population decimating tsunamis, thus garnering fewer mentions in world news. Only a handful of climate alarmists took up the charge, ready to bang the drums afresh, using this unprecedented spate of activity as fodder for the cause.
The eruptions appeared unrelated in all aspects except for proximity. An intercontinental ducks-in-a-row fireshow, from far to the south on up through Asia, around the horn in Siberia and Alaska, then tracking back down as far as Peru. Some extreme watchers actually booked cruises and flights in the hopes of catching an eruption in real time, but although more predictable than usual, they weren’t that predictable.
Scientists claimed it was nothing more than an odd set of coincidences. Most vulcanologists agreed, though the global warming caveat was always quick on the heels of any statements. By and large the scientific community considered it to be nothing more than an odd footnote. Even as the incidences mounted, all was considered well. The rumblings of seismic trouble-spots elsewhere in the world raised no eyebrows until the surprise eruption in Italy. Conspiracy theorists had a field day at first, but even that event was written off as unrelated, a one-off coincidence.
In the ring, the death toll mounted, emergency teams were assembled and a world wide sentiment of sympathy resulted in huge cash donations, but underneath it all there was little sense of real concern. If a quarter of a million dead under tsunami waves could hardly shock the unaffected, half that amount burned to death barely even registered. People wrote their checks or clicked their links, then they moved on with their lives. For the displaced and the injured, support was hard to come by in remote locations, but it came eventually, and life began getting back to normal even there, as well.
Top level government scientists had been placed under guard, a top-down gag order affecting all their communications in or out, so they were unable to confirm nor deny any outside speculation. To them, this was not only expected, but something they’d been counting on since long before the notion of global warming had even hit the world stage. To them, this was the start of something even more major, but they were in no position to share that information with outsiders. When the time was right, government leaders would do so — but the scientists themselves were only authorized to wait and watch, at least until such time as they were called upon to corroborate. When that day came, the true scope of events would stun even the most ardent of climate change hysterics.
* * *
Research Fellow Dean Eckert, on loan from UC Berkeley, was under orders to observe patterns of refraction in the northern lights for comparative atmospheric data. Quite a mouthful to explain to people, but the work wasn’t particularly daunting. Most of the students who spent time in the great north returned home with a fair number of stories, and a warm recollection of the experience. It was entertaining enough, so long as you didn’t have to live there permanently.
For the locals, heavy drink and recreational smoke were the tickets to sanity. A method of escape for those forever trapped. But for their colleagues-on-loan the abuse was more intense, a semester-long haze underwritten by their hosts. Many returned home with well established habits that had to be broken.
Dean had never been much of a party guy. More the social pariah, at least through high school. But even he wasn’t immune to the allure of the northern lifestyle. After experiencing some epic parties, regret-tinged hangovers, and plenty of that next day solution known as the Total Hangover Cure, he was beginning to get used to life in the wilderness. He even considered the possibility of a permanent assignment, either in Alaska or some other such remote outpost. For the heartiest types, there was always McMurdo Station, way down under in the south pole, but he wasn’t that much of a cold weather junkie.
His research was going much as expected, and it was coming time for the wrap-up and finalization phase of the fellowship. This was sure to be accompanied by more imbibing, at ever faster rates, but before that happened he had promised himself a decent tour of the facility. He reasoned that to get the most out of the experience, he had to see all the place had to offer. That was the plan which led him, along with a couple of freshmen assistants, down into the dustbin late on a Friday night. The distant noise of classmates gearing up for the weekend filtered into the dank dungeon, in the middle of the middle of nowhere, reminding all three of them there were better places to be. Still, he had made up his mind to catalogue the specimens, and so they set out for the cosmic dustbin.
* * *
‘The Dustbin’ was a tongue-in-cheek campus reference for the asteroid and near-Earth object repository. One of a dozen such collection centers within the research complex on the campus of the University of Alaska at Anchorage. Unimpressive though the heaps of rocks and dust might be to the untrained, countless revelations could be found under the keen gaze of an expert. Makeup and composition provided valuable hints about the cosmos. Shape and wear could indicate lifespan and interactions, myriad scrapes and scars bore the history of collision and gravitational events. The whereabouts and trajectories of these objects, prior to their fateful fall into the gravity well to their final resting place, could also be determined to a precise degree. These were just some of the intriguing facts that could be gleaned by the right observer.
One of these wanderers, an unassuming rock amid larger, shinier objects, bore a particularly significant scar. It should have raised alarm bells from the dustbin to the Houston observatory itself, if anyone had know what to look for. Instead, the rock sat in obscurity, only notable as the subject of skin-deep undergraduate papers, not a one among them noticing the vital element. The specimen later noted as the IO-88 ‘key stone’, a find cosmologists would soon offer up their eye-teeth for a look at, went completely unnoticed for years.
* * *
Both rock and researcher became overnight sensations. Dean Eckert received near-unlimited funding to delve into his earthshattering revelation, and the clout and influence that went along with such prestige, making real inroads possible. His asteroid was relocated to the Smithsonian, where it became a prominent fixture, and he himself was relocated to an equally prestigious institution — the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at Cambridge, where he spent most of his non-lecture time hunkered over specimens from his own discovery and numerous others. As real-world events began to line up with his predictions, he was already the most sought after scientist of his generation. Short-listed for exclusive opportunities, he fast became a fixture on the lecture circuit, appearing at symposiums and universities worldwide, and participating in numerous government consultations as well. But he never forgot his first love, the reason for his success. Those backwater days in Alaska, poking around the cosmic dustbin, panning for gold, remained with him wherever he went.
Twelve Months Prior to Anomaly
The sharecropper was livid. Highway robbery! The apiarist had deigned to lower his rate, but so what? What good was ten percent when the price was so lofty to start with? This injustice couldn’t stand. He would lose the entire harvest if he dickered much longer, but what was the point if he could do no better than break even?
The beekeeper was adamant — he couldn’t lower his price any further. There was too much demand, and his supply was stretched as it was. Even the conglomerates were shelling out multiples just to keep the hives a few extra days. He stood to lose his investment in a week or a month, a fact growing increasingly likely, so he had to strike while the iron was hot, earn whatever he could while he still had the means. This disaster had put him in a bad position too, even if on the surface he seemed to benefit.
The two launched into a war of words, escalating into an altercation, and within minutes one was wounded and the other off to jail. The insects were left behind. When an associate returned to collect them hours later, they were all dead.
This latest disaster, the most significant predictor of all, went unnoticed by almost everyone. The decimation of the bees took them to near-extinction in a matter of months. Unrelated to the more commonly understood hive collapse phenomenon, it sounded so similar most people assumed it was the same. As that had been widely reported over the years, even the media could drum up no fresh passion for the topic, even while the experts insisted this was an entirely different affliction. As the hysteria around hive collapse had petered out, so everyone simply assumed this would wind up the same non-story.
Unlike hive collapse with its complex set of variables, this seemed entirely due to one cause, though the exact nature of it was beyond current understanding. And it affected not only bees, but all insects. The bees were simply the most noticeable victims, crushed to death as though an invisible boot had trod them into the ground. Insectologists were aghast. Nobody else gave it a second thought.
* * *
Colonel Shane R. Douglas was just minutes into his climb when the first alarm sounded. Not yet clear of the atmosphere, he was losing lift during a critical phase where atmospheric drag could mean the difference between flight and free-fall. His options were severely limited. Too late for an ocean abort, not enough thrust to force his way into a parking orbit.
How is this happening? He dismissed the thought as soon as it crossed his mind. It didn’t matter. They’d work out the timeline on the ground. His job was to think forward, so he began doing just that.
Designed for multi-decade journeys, his vehicle was considered to be foolproof, able to fly itself out of any irregularity. The pilot, akin to a formality in the designers’ eyes, was forbidden from intervening in normal operations, and had limited power over the craft even in emergencies.
Colonel Douglas would do all he could to save his ship. He wasn’t, however, willing to go down with it, so he prepped the evacuation protocols without hesitation. An extreme reaction so early in the crisis, perhaps, but his record of zero fatalities was an accomplishment in and of itself. One well worth keeping in his mind, even for an otherwise failed mission.
He fought to stabilize the craft, was thinking ahead to what came next. Not only would this leave a mark—the crater would be visible to any looky-loos with an internet connection—but the experimental engines he was controlling would likely create a seismic event. Property damage, if they were lucky, but unthinkably worse if he slammed into a populated area. He could set the coordinates for a non-populated spot, but the attempt might be futile if he didn’t get things under control before bail out.
He re-focused on the problem, noting a slight discrepancy in fuel consumption a split second after launch. This caused what should’ve been a straight, smooth shot into orbit to become a dangerously off-kilter trajectory. But that wasn’t enough to scuttle the mission, he realized. There was something else. Something outside his ship. The atmospherics were all wrong. It was as if he lost his cushion, not like a pocket of turbulence, but as if he’d run into vacuum too soon. Impossible, he thought. But nothing else made sense.
Now with a working theory as to what was happening, he realized that he only had seconds before impact. The rollover would force a steep dive, which in itself might well kill him. If not, the impact-heard-round-the-world would finish him off for sure. Going with gut instinct, he gave up trying to stabilize his ship, instead coaxing it into an even more wild spin.
His arms and legs ached as he pulled himself out of the command seat and in the direction of the pod, g-forces threatening to split his face down the middle, every muscle protesting the sudden shift. Inch by inch, he forced himself to keep moving, even as he felt the onset of the fatal roll. Almost there…
He grunted from effort as he reached to grab the hatchway with one shaking hand, then the other, and he pulled with all the strength at his command, forcing his frame into the pod. Landing hard on the jumpseat, he slammed the hatch lever shut and launched, spinning away at such a rate that he blacked out. When he came to, still spinning and about to puke, he saw his beautiful spacecraft, above and to port, then starboard, back to port. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, the mother ship was nearly out of sight. He caught a glimpse of it’s spinning frame in the corner of his eye just as his fingers grasped the emergency stick. With a deft flick of the wrist, he forced the distant ship out of it’s deadly spin just as he punched the red tip to remotely ignite the afterburners.
Watching the ship veer off its crash trajectory, he nudged the controls until he was satisfied the long oceanward glide was underway. In the unlikely event that a ship got in the way, the automated systems would initiate a preemptive self-destruct, but otherwise the impact with water would initiate a water-landing protocol that would ease the craft to a half-submerged halt.
He couldn’t have done it while the spin still affected his brainpan, but it’d been an easy enough save after abandoning ship. With a sigh, he flipped switches and maneuvered the small pod oceanward, aiming for a splashdown close to his lost command. He spotted it’s intact lines far out to sea, just a few seconds past the control center, with nothing more than a bit of water damage to fix. He adjusted his trajectory closer to control, so as to pop the hatch and start bitching without even the need for a pickup.
* * *
A pickup was sent anyway. Douglas made sure his flight recorder was offloaded and safe, then set off to find the brass. The minute he stepped into control, however, he was hit by applause, so thunderous it stopped him dead in his tracks. Not that he hadn’t expected some praise—a save of this magnitude was bound to impress—but the enthusiasm made his anger more difficult to convey, and he was suddenly reluctant to come off the wrong way in front of his ground crew. Only the leadership deserved full fury. So he accepted the accolades with a brief smile and a wave-off, waiting until he was behind closed doors to launch into his tirade.
Instead of a panel of superiors, though, he was faced with just one, his immediate superior. In the normal run of things, this wouldn’t stop him, but Joseph Mansfield was more than just a boss. He was a friend, and a well-respected one. Things were going from bad to worse in Shane’s mind, unable as he was to voice the frustration he so desperately needed to get off his chest. Instead, he took a deep breath, saluted, and waited to hear what his commander had to say.
“Shane, thanks for coming so soon after…” The commander looked him over, noting the tension, and motioned for his pilot to stand easy. Shane complied. “I’m sorry you had it so rough up there,” continued the commander, “I wish I could’ve given you more of a warning, but we weren’t expecting anything like this so soon.”
“Christ, Joseph, what happened? That was no damned atmospheric disturbance, I can tell you that much. Do we have any data back yet?”
“Shut up and listen for a minute.” An out-of-character reply that immediately grabbed Shane’s attention. “There’s more to this than you know. I’m not authorized to get into it as much as I’d like, but the thing is we’ve seen this before.”
Shane Douglas was too stunned to react at first. He felt a hot flash, then a sudden sense of ghostly unreality. In his years of flying he’d never encountered anything remotely like what’d just happened. How could they have seen it before? What did that even mean?
He must have looked as perplexed as he felt, because Commander Mansfield took the extraordinary step of grabbing him by both shoulders. “We had no choice. Orders came from way over our heads. We were to proceed with the test flights as long as possible, but if it happened again…”—he paused, swallowing hard, and Shane realized how guilty his commander felt at that moment—“So I gave the go ahead. It’s my fault.”
“They sent me up there with an unknown element?” Shane managed to stammer, “You let me? Of all the…I came this fucking close…”
“I know,” Mansfield said, “and it gets a lot worse. Something’s going on, something way beyond upper atmospherics. Real bad shit.”
It took a minute for Shane to calm down, but finally he was able to collect himself. His friend wouldn’t have done anything without good reason, and he wouldn’t have obeyed a dangerous order unless the stakes demanded it. He sighed. “Okay, what else do I need to know?”
* * *
“Reassigned?” The order hit him like a brick, and he began to wonder if the entire unit had simply checked out and gone insane. First they try to blow him up, now he was out?
“Not exactly,”—Mansfield flopped into his worn out desk chair and lit a cigarette, violating about ten regs in the process—“you want?”
Douglas shook it off. He was just six weeks into his latest quit, and it was finally starting to take. “Joseph, give me something here. I can’t believe that you’d have thrown the whole mission down the toilet just to let me go. What the hell is going on?”
Mansfield nodded. He knew enough to expect resistance. “The good news is, you’re still with the unit. You’re not being transferred, officially.”
Maybe this wasn’t so bad. “What is it, then?”
“Call it a temporary reclassification. A matter of national security. That much I can say, but not much more. Even assuming I knew much more, which honest to God I don’t. This is big, Shane. Bigger than both of us. And they need you. You’re to report to Joint Base Wilkinson. They’ll fill you in when you get there.”
“Wilkinson? Jesus, what’re they looking to do down there?”
The commander didn’t answer directly, instead handing over an official looking envelope with an expression of the utmost seriousness. It was a letter from the White House, marked private and cleared for secret and above.
“I’ll leave you to read it,” Mansfield said, “we can talk after.”
“I take it that means you’ve, ah,”—he tapped on the envelope—“got one of these yourself, commander?” He felt overwhelmed staring at the eagle on the seal.
“A version of it, yes,” Mansfield said as he stepped over to the door. “Take all the time you need. Shoot me a text when you’re ready.”
Shane nodded and gave half a wave, caught up in a sudden, potent curiosity. The moment the door clicked, he tore it open.
THE WHITE HOUSE
This letter is to inform you of an ongoing project pertaining to national security, and to which I require your participation. As ordered and detailed below, you are to report to Wilkerson Base on a directive from this office, to serve in an interim position as liaison to scientific staff and consulting research associates. They, and you, will be posted to base within the timeframe indicated below.
This assignment pertains to and involves final selection of the SFO contingency crew, which I trust you’ve already been made aware of. I have no doubt you’ll execute this assignment faithfully and with distinction. You can expect further instructions from myself or my staff in the near future, as well as an on-site tour of inspection which is being worked out with base command as you read this. I look forward to meeting you in person at that time. Until then I wish you godspeed. Your fellow citizens are counting on you.
Jack Morrison. The signature looked so simple. Casual, even. President Morrison. Seeing to this mission personally. What new threat could possibly have motivated the president to start assigning military assets from his own desk?
Shane slowly slipped the paper back into it’s ripped container, having memorized the instructions down to the tiniest detail. He walked over to Commander Mansfield’s desk, sat down heavily in his bosses chair, and leaned back to feed the document into the shredder. He gave himself a minute, but only a minute, before texting the commander. It was time to resume the conversation, now that they were both up to speed.
* * *
“Space Force One’s being repurposed?” Shane’s incredulity was impossible to mask. It was also completely understandable. All military fliers of a certain rank were aware of the storied Presidential escape ship, though no one ever expected it would see use, at least not beyond the requisite training sessions. It was like something out of science fiction. A dystopian tale nobody thought might come true.
“Seems the case, Colonel,” Mansfield replied, sounding as surprised as his friend. “They’re getting geared up over at Cheyanne Mountain as we speak.”
“Jesus, they’re going to launch straight out of the mountain?”
The commander nodded.
Contingencies had been in place since before either of them had enlisted,with the Cheyanne launch scenario being one of the most extreme. The sort of nuclear or disaster scenario that might give rise to it was difficult to imagine, and yet now it seemed the government was looking at just those kinds of precautions. What the hell are they expecting, anyway? Shane wondered.
“I’ve been given broad authority over crew assignments,” Mansfield said, “including my pilot, of course.”
Shane swallowed, then pointed at his own chest.
“It’s not for sure yet,” Mansfield warned, “still a lot up in the air. But that’s my preference. We’ve got a lot to take care of before we get to that bridge, though.”
There was a ton of logistics to handle, that much was obvious from the orders. For some reason many of those matters were being handled at Joint Base Wilkerson.
“I’ll keep you apprised as much as I can, Shane.”
“Thank you, sir.” Rising to his feet, Colonel Douglas gave his superior a salute, which Commander Mansfield returned with equivalent respect. “Be careful, okay? I don’t know what you’re getting into, but it doesn’t sound like a walk in the park. Pucker factor’s got to be off the charts.”
Douglas nodded, walked out, and left the facility straight away. Despite the kind words of his old friend, he knew he didn’t belong here anymore.
Twelve Weeks Prior to Anomaly
The doctor on call, summoned to a farmhouse at the behest of a concerned neighbor, discovered the first cases in a remote agrarian community. Scattered carcasses of farm animals littered the drive up to the main house, and inside the farmer was splayed on his kitchen floor, sheet-pale and immobilized. His wife, the only member of the household left unscathed, was upstairs holding a vomiting child over the sink, while simultaneously applying an ice compress to the head of another. In the bedroom, three more lay in various states of distress. Across the hall, a farmhand lay atop a bed. From just a cursory glance the doctor could see that rigor mortis had already begun to set in.
In the town clinic, the staff was overrun with complaints, ranging from high fever and nausea to blood loss, hair loss, loss of bodily function control, and paralysis. It was the same all over the county. As insane as it seemed, the likeliest cause was acute radiation poisoning, despite the lack of power plants and military bases in the area. And nothing else could explain sudden exposure to high doses like these. The idea of a lost bomb or military cover-up began circulating, but these speculations fell by the wayside when fresh cases cropped up not only in far flung provinces, but even bordering countries. There had to be another explanation. Meanwhile the death toll rose. Whatever the cause, it was in high enough doses to be lethal within days. Sometimes hours.
The sudden, pervasive nature of the phenomenon was beyond shocking. The end result; mass death, concentrated in one town or region. A full-blown panic was right around the corner, as the worst pandemic scenarios began to materialize. There was no predictability to it, nowhere to hide—the only hint of trouble came when neighbors started dropping like flies. That was when you knew you were next.
Researchers were reluctant to drive out to the remote locations, fearful that the contamination zones might be wider than the authorities admitted. Even in full hazmat suits and gear, they couldn’t be completely secure, not if there was no detecting the radiation zones and where they might end. You could suit up, of course, but when to take it off was the bigger issue. Geiger counters were only sporadically preventative. Previously safe areas were suddenly dosed with radiation baths so intense that there wasn’t time enough to re-don the suits before critical exposure. Thus the brave souls looking into the crisis were few and far between, while in the larger cities, mayors and regional governors waited in terror for the first strike to hit a good-sized population center.
The decimation of San Lorenzo, Paraguay occurred just six weeks after the first reported deaths. A sparsely populated city, relatively speaking, but a decent sized one even so. Remote, and with scant resources to handle a crisis of this magnitude. They didn’t stand a chance. The volume of radiation pouring into the city made recovery impossible. And the mass exodus guaranteed that no emergency responders could get anywhere near the place, all roads being jammed with fleeing survivors.
The climate changers thought they had all the ammunition they needed, and they were fired up. The only problem was, the effects were limited to the wrong hemisphere. As much as they tried to drum up support and fear, the simple fact was most of the world’s population had no interest in what went on south of the equator. There was little concern for anything that might be killing people down there, so long as it stayed where it was. Even as the cries rang out for help, the story was dying on the vine. Human interest, and nothing more. Even that dropped off the front page quickly enough, as the world grew accustomed. Several more cities lay in ruins, but none large enough to trigger a new news cycle.
* * *
Forward Listening Post Southstrike. The farthest outpost capable of executing such a mammoth-sized pluck and rescue, they were hip-deep in evacuees, with more pouring in by the hour. Aside from normal refugees, the sheer volume of radiation victims forced them to perform mass triage on-site, holding over the worst for immediate treatment. In the frantic shuffle, countless potentially infected souls passed through without so much as a cursory examination. There simply wasn’t time, nor close to enough resources, and the promised reinforcements had not yet appeared.
That was just the overland situation. Numerous other refugee groups making their way north by sea were clogging up the shipping lanes, posing a danger to normal traffic. In a panic to escape, the sheer volume of bodies made the job of the various coast guards next to impossible. Southstrike was one of a number of remote facilities being repurposed for evacuation, but they were right in the thick of it—many more would starve or collapse if forced to move on. Coordination of assets from half a dozen countries along the coastline was another priority, as they attempted to stem the tide long enough to feed small handfuls of the starving hordes.
The Post, as personnel fondly referred to their temporary home, was a backwoods assignment, a relic of the cold war when enemy ship movements often came as a surprise. Little came through the post that wasn’t already seen to by the main listening stations along the eastern seaboard. The assignment was more of a waypoint to future promotion than anything else. As such, snap and polish was kept to a minimum, and for the most part the rank system was more a formality than a day to day concern.
Lieutenant Alia Myers was one of the lower ranking technicians, but she wasn’t made to feel inferior, so she had no compunction about speaking up when something seemed off. When the first of the Russian language transmissions filtered through, she thought nothing of calling up her immediate superior to ask for clarification.
When her colleague showed up to help, she assumed it’d be taken care of in a matter of minutes. Yet they were still working on the puzzle an hour later when the relief shift showed up. But they, too, seemed at a loss to figure out just what the hell was going on.
* * *
The cause for concern had been mainly cerebral up until now. Though the international talks had all but broken down, there was little reason to think that hostilities might be around the corner. As such, it was particularly unnerving to find the Soviet Socialist Territorial Navy on the move, repositioning into a strike formation for the first time in years. The first time since the reformation of their government, in fact, not to mention the first time since the cold war. They were placing themselves firmly on a war footing, and the timing in reference to the escalating disaster in South America seemed far from coincidental.
“That escalated fast,” the duty officer quipped, trying to relieve some of the tension.
It didn’t work. Nobody laughed. Not even a smile. Officers and crew around the facility began breaking out dusty procedure manuals. What to do in the case of a Soviet bloc interference scenario. Not a single one of them had any first hand experience, nor did most of the current crop of soldiers. They’d signed up with the intention of fighting ISIS or Al Qaida, ready for a terrorist threat far more than anything Communism-related. And yet, there it was, plain as day. The Russians were coming.
* * *
Jo’s date wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but that wasn’t a major priority. All part of the charm. And his cute features more than made up for it anyway. Besides, they were early on, still engaged in informal hangouts. She always arranged things this way before deciding on anything beyond casual. It was her method of exerting control, though they never had a clue. Size ‘em up and fit ‘em for size, an old bit of advice she’d hung on to since the first she’d ever heard it. A way of avoiding any unpleasant surprises. This one didn’t need any help personality-wise, he had that department well in hand. But the way he handled himself, that was another story. She could fix that though.
Jo looked him over with a practiced eye. “I think you’d look better in something grey,” she said, strolling to the shelf with an assortment of semi-autos and hand-cannons. “Ever mixed it up before?”
He looked confused. “Mixed it up how?”
She smiled, selecting a weapon. It was borderline green, manly, and had a lot more firepower than she’d ever seen him with. “You know, mix and match, go with something eclectic. Every time I see you it’s glocks all week, and deer-rifles every Saturday.”
“How do you know I don’t mix it up on Sundays?” he said, smiling back at her as he took the proffered gun from her hands. “I’ll go squeeze off a few, see how she handles.”
He was gone for several minutes, and she took the time to look at laser-scopes. Not the right season, but you never knew when you might find a bargain in these shows. She was getting a good vibe from this guy, the first decent date she’d been on since sniper season. It wasn’t easy to carve out enough personal time for friendship, let alone anything more serious. She’d just gotten herself untangled from a boatload of commitments that had sapped her time and energy for the better part of two years. Now that she’d wrapped up so many projects, she was looking for a little normalcy, and that always started with a gun show.
He took his sweet time, which she didn’t mind. She wasn’t one to shirk the joys of anticipation. But even she had her limitations, and after ten minutes she started getting antsy. Probably exactly what he wants, she thought, craning her neck to see if he’d emerged from the shooting range yet. No sign of him. She was officially intrigued. Finally, she caught sight of him walking her way—wearing the satisfied expression of a man who’d just experienced that rush of power only a good weapon could provide. His ever-so-slightly aroused grin made the wait well worth it. She felt goosebumps. He looked good. Nothing turned her on more quickly than a man all testosterone pumped and feeling invulnerable. He was just close enough to reach out and touch when her phone rang. So distracted by her deviously handsome companion, she picked up without looking at the caller ID first.
* * *
God dammit. I really liked him, too. She hated herself for answering, hurling epithets at herself as she peeled away from the show. It was so stupid. No good could have come of it. Nobody ever called with good news. Just work, work, and more work. He won’t call me. There’s no way he’s going to call me. His quick-shouted promise to call was just something you said in the moment. No way he calls.
So much for the dating scene. Maybe next fall. Did they really need her right now? It’s not as though she was hard to track down when things got thick, they could’ve waited. Left her alone long enough to get to know the guy for a day, at least. They were watching, they always were, so they knew damned well what she was up to. It’s just common curtesy, she thought. They very well could’ve waited.
The racing of her brain caused her foot to press instinctively harder, already smoking up the road at an even hundred miles an hour, her custom corvette a blur when the cops clocked her. They wouldn’t catch up, but she did see them pick up the chase. Something had to be done before they radioed ahead, so she beat them to it, calling for a clean path.
Within thirty seconds, the distant cops slowed, then pulled off. She passed three more squad cars that didn’t so much as veer in her direction. Her business was beyond their level of access, and that was all they needed to know. She crinkled her eyes into the rearview. With it’s telescopic lens she could see every detail of that first furious patrolman barking into his radio. Little things like that made her happy, and she smiled and gave a little wave that would’ve infuriated him far further if he’d been close enough to see it.
* * *
Jo strolled in, tossed aside her jacket and keys, and said flatly, “This had better be worth my trouble. I was in the middle of something.”
The woman at the far end of the room turned, graceful in her middle-aged attire, and raised an eyebrow. “Another gun show, Agent Osborne?”
Jo gave the woman a sour smile. “It makes me happy.”
“He was cute. But you can do better,” said the older woman dryly.
“Not if you have anything to say about it, Zee,” Jo replied, eliciting a smile. “So what’s so urgent you couldn’t explain over the line?”
“I think you’re going to like it,” the older woman said, pulling out a chair for her colleague and sitting delicately in her own place. The name plate on her desk read Director Zellweiger, but to Jo she’d always be ‘Director Zee’, or just plain Zee if they were alone. Zee swiveled around and activated a wall display, causing the mural behind the desk to slide aside. Jo took the seat and stared up, crossing her legs and rotating in a lazy stretch.
The monitor sprang to life, projecting a map of the eastern seaboard which was—almost imperceptibly—in motion. Weather systems on the move and just the tiniest flash of steel glints indicating aircraft and boats far below. The picture quickly zoomed down, bringing the display in close to a patch of ocean which at first appeared nondescript. As the resolution cleared, however, it revealed a construction project that dwarfed the surrounding vessels.
“It’s already happening, then?” Jo’s voice betrayed a hint of awe, the first real emotion she’d allowed herself since arriving.
“Disturbing, isn’t it?” Director Zee drawled. “But that’s not the worst of it. Look closer.”
Jo leaned forward, rocking up onto her toes to peer deep into the screen. When she gasped, the older woman shut off the picture.
“They’re not even going to attempt containment?” Jo asked. It hardly seemed possible.
“Not if they think they can make a weapon out of it.”
This provoked a gasp from the younger woman. It was certainly something they’d considered, but the reality of everything coming to a head at once came as a shock.
“I need you go get down there yourself and see how far they’ve gone,” the Director continued, “I can’t very well go to the President with alternatives until I know what he’s up to.”
“So we’re accelerating the timeline, then?”
“We have no choice. Our enemies have already taken steps to respond.”
Jo felt her breathing speed up and turn ragged. The Russians wouldn’t sit still for this, and the Chinese would be right on their tails, particularly with a hothead in the Oval Office. Of all the times to have hell break loose.
This was happening fast. The influx was already underway, judging from the number of heat signatures and submersible craft she’d been so surprised to see. She’d known this day was coming, but it was always something distant. Like a dreaded relative come to visit, or an age-related medical concern—you never expect it until it hits you.
“And by the way,” the older woman continued, “something else has come up that needs your attention. You’ll need to see to it before you move on to the main assignment.”
“Oh?” What could possibly be more important? she wondered.
“An outsider. Seems he just stumbled onto it, actually. He’ll need to be brought in.”
“Stumbled onto it without a baseline knowledge?” The idea was insane. The only people on Earth aware of the upcoming shift were experts in their fields, fully briefed by government agencies devoted to secrecy. For someone to learn it on their own? Either the man was a genius, or else some people weren’t doing their jobs. either notion disturbing in its own way.
“Shocking, isn’t it? You’ll be bringing him in directly—he’s running late as you can see. Get down there as soon as you have him in custody.”
“And if he doesn’t come willingly?”
The old woman handed Jo a data pad. “Use this as bait. Once he gets a look at it, he’ll comply.”
Jo nodded. She knew the synopsis had already been sent to her computer, there was no need for questions. This was what she’d been training for since she was knee-high. She didn’t need to ask about how best to adjust to the new timeline, either. The methods had been burned into her consciousness since she’d first stepped foot into the agency. She knew exactly what she needed to do, and when.
The only question, then, was what to do about this outsider. They’d accounted for almost everything, but this was a black swan hitch. Some poor idiot who got himself mixed up in this mess would surely regret his involvement sooner rather than later, but it would have to be done ad hoc, something the agency frowned upon.
No dates next fall, either, she realized with a sense of finality. Not until the work was taken care of, and her now extremely full plate had been cleared.
The NSA spacecraft slid into its adjusted trajectory and flipped over in weightless grace, turning away from the planet to begin tracking its new objective. With coordinated efficiency, a cluster of interlinked ships and satellites mirrored the same path. Huge numbers of space born assets were being repurposed—all but the essential ones, and the ones keeping the population below preoccupied and semi-informed. Those remained on-task as always. The rest took to the new directive in concert; feeding mountains of data to way stations below, information sharing done at an unprecedented level. The military commands of a dozen nations were now involved in tracking the threat, and many more were in negotiations to join up.
Far from the machinations of politics, coordinated by communications stations and space agencies, the decisions on where to train the lenses occupied the minds of some of the world’s top thinkers. Each decision carefully considered given the limited time and an endless sky. The lenses were chiefly positioned relative to the plane of the galaxy, straight on to dead center. They scoured the darkness for clues as to the origin of the threat, but no signs of significance had yet been found. Scientists were split on when to expect anything; some said weeks, others expected it to take years, though the consensus was a hopeful sooner rather than later.
In the Los Alamos laboratory, a team of scientists was repositioning a wayward platform that hadn’t linked up with its assigned group. At first they suspected mechanical failure, but followup reports indicated something stranger. So early on, it seemed unlikely in the extreme, but the information appeared to check out. The platform had found something.
The platform was reset to cardinal programming, remaining fixed in place. As the technicians below worked on identifying the problem, the device continued it’s work, gathering data which would become highly valuable in short order. The realization of what they’d stumbled upon, after several double-checks and independent verifications, caused an eruption of enthusiasm throughout the community. The anomaly they were searching for was found, not by careful calculations and a unified plan, but by a machine that just happened to be looking in the right place at the right time.
With the anomaly identified, the real work began. Number crunchers and code experts the world over were brought in to analyze for commonalities, the results fed into a supercomputer for further analysis. These results would determine the appropriate planetary response. In a very real sense, the fate of the world lay in their hands.
* * *
At the Los Alamos facility, Dean Eckert had been working a triple shift when the event occurred. Any lack of enthusiasm, or even outright indifference, could be easily forgiven, considering his exhausted state. Had he been less dedicated, he might have given in to his fatigue, accepted the results at face value. But Eckert was a driven man, even in a clinical sense, and prone to superhuman bouts of productivity. So he performed extensive cross-checks and re-verifications even as the data was supposed to be going out to the world. Time was short, and the pressure was on, but he refused to compromise.
When the data didn’t cross properly, he committed himself to the quadruple shift, getting to work checking every detail one more time. When it still didn’t add up, he assigned an assistant to keep working while he slept for two hours, then he was right back to it. He hated leaving stones unturned, and more than that he hated results that didn’t add up.
Following a series of marathon sessions, it still seemed that his calculations were spot on. Given the fact that they didn’t agree with the findings beamed down from space, this was puzzling. He’d expected the issue to revolve around whosoever’s figures were at fault, somewhere among his colleagues. More unlikely, it may have been himself who was at fault. Hard to imagine, but not impossible. He’d hardly considered the possibility the orbital computer could be mistaken, though that fact was becoming more apparent with each cross-confirmation.
Mistaken was a wrong-minded way of viewing the problem. Malfunctioning, more like it. Computers didn’t make errors per se. They worked as programmed, or else they were broken. This one appeared to be broken. The information it gathered from peering out at the stars seemed, at first blush, to be a lie. But computers don’t lie, either, so this had to be a failure of some sort. Unprecedented for such an advanced machine, but there was a first time for everything.
So Dean Eckert turned his attention to figuring out what part of the computer had broken down. This took more marathon work sessions, and everyone around him was beginning to feel the strain. Several of his colleagues suggested writing it up and farming it off, but Dean’s policy was clear on that front—never stick it to the next guy. Not without a working solution, at least. Thus far he had none. ‘It’s broken’ wouldn’t cut it.
He went so far as to bring in duplicate machines. They began by stripping one of them to expose the physical components to space-like conditions, in case the issue might be strictly mechanical. They tested another for software anomalies, bringing it up to speed and then taking it through the exact sequence it’s orbiting sister had completed prior to the odd readings. Nothing out of the ordinary was found. Hardware and software on the duplicates checked out perfectly, except for the fact that their math lined up with Eckert’s, while the orbiting counterpart did not.
It became apparent there were elements missing. After cross-checking machines and math, Eckert traveled farther afield in search of a workable solution. When normal physics broke down, he turned to particle physics, then to quantum, and finally quantum biological. There, at last, he found his answer.
“Look at the discrepancy from the standpoint of someone standing here on Earth,” he told his team of assistants, “and imagine that it’s not a matter of locating an incoming anomaly at all.”
“What else would it be?” one of them asked.
A reasonable question.
“What if we’re seeing a reflection here?” Dean explained, giving an awkward thumbs-up to the questioner. “Interacting with a point in space, yes, but also originating here. A gravitational link, interacting both ways, only the satellite isn’t seeing the origin down here. It’s only sending back the reflection it sees.”
The others quickly took to laptops and scratch pads to re-figure the math. Within a few minutes, their work was beginning to match up with Eckert’s, though it still wasn’t perfect, nor did it line up with the orbital figures yet.
“What are we missing?” he prompted. Receiving only blank stares, he turned back to his own calculations and pointed to a base assumption they’d not yet factored in. The biological component. He waited for them to catch on, but they still looked confused.
“What’s happening down here on a quantum level isn’t just gravitational, it’s morphing. Growing. You have to account for that.”
“So what, are you saying it’s alive?”
Dean shook his head. “I wouldn’t go that far. It’s more like chemistry. But it is interacting with biological forces down here. That’s why the numbers don’t add up with the ones we’re getting back. It’s sterile up there.”
The fact that this inorganic effect behaved like a living organism was nothing short of revolutionary, but Eckert had no time to ponder the significance. He was on to something, and now he was going to work it out, finalize it for presentation. Then, maybe, he could finally get some sleep.
Eckert stared at his bricked device, mouth agape, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of what had just happened. At first stunned, then quick to anger, he finally slammed it down in disgust. Even so, he wasn’t nearly to the moment of panic he’d be experiencing in short order. Racing back to his office, he grabbed the mouse and ran it back and forth, trying to get his machine to wake. A blank screen shone back on him, mocking his efforts. Power failure? It couldn’t be. They had redundant systems. He began to sweat.
He took a deep, calming breath. Everything was backed up. If not here, on the servers, then in the cloud. Plus all his research should’ve shown up on colleagues machines in real time. Okay, so there’s no need, he told himself, but the sick feeling was creeping in faster still. Something seemed extremely off. The timing, of all times for things to go to hell, it just seemed…intentional? Impossible, he thought. But how else could he explain it.
One by one, he checked the alternative backup sources. First the servers, which should’ve contained an identical copy of everything. Not only was that not the case, the entire bank had been fried. The pit of unease grew in his stomach.
Turning to the cloud, he went through the rigamarole of requests and forms necessary to retrieve his research, demanding the contents of far-flung backup servers wherever they might exist. The apologetic notes he got in reply were personalized, obviously sent from management at whatever companies his institution hired to safeguard vital information. They had not done so, and felt just awful about it. Dean was beginning to feel pretty awful himself, but he still held out hope that his colleagues would save the day. Surely some of them would have the missing data.
When replies began filtering in, some expressing regret and others surprise, but none of them producing even a scrap of the relevant information, at that point his reaction became visceral. Departing the realm of annoyance and approaching horrified, he began to wonder if this were all some sort of a plot against him. He even wondered if he were perhaps losing his grip, but a quick re-check of all the confirming information assured him that this was all too real.
All sources now checked—every one of them either deleted, wrecked, or otherwise unsalvageable. It was clearly intentional. But how could a saboteur be so thorough, in such little time, without missing a beat? Even Dean himself didn’t know how many sources he might have to check back with. He thought through all the people he’d sent partial information to, then realized whoever was out to get him must’ve known each and every one of them as well. How else could everything be so thoroughly cleansed?
It was all well and good to worry about who might be behind it, but that was a matter for the police to handle, and later. For now, he needed to figure out what to do about it. That was the question that ran through his mind. Without the math to back it up, his assumptions were easily dismissed. And even if he were able start back from square one, it would take too much time. He might as well consider it a lost cause, fall in line behind the other researchers and make the best of it. The very thought of that humiliation made him want to puke, but what else could he do?
* * *
Eckert spent half the night, and all of the next morning, brooding in his hotel room. His lack of sleep allowed him to take stock in his predicament, both physical and mental. The room, cheap as the university could manage, was dusty around the edges, and smelled vaguely of rot. The bed was hard and wiry underneath, but as there were no decent chairs to relax in he had to make due.
As he half-sat, half lay there with the white noise of television blaring away a distraction, he thought about how depressing this all was. At first he’d been glad of the chance to get away, thinking he could take his distraught mind off the horrors of losing all his work. But being away didn’t change the violation, nor did it afford him the luxury to focus on anything else of importance. Rather, it proved a banal exercise, typical of his rather low-position on the totem pole, where those above would hand down unwanted assignments to the younger, less experienced among them, no matter their cleverness or up-and-coming status among the administration.
So here he sat, waiting to deliver a boring lecture to a bored audience, all the while still sick to the pit of his stomach over the loss, but after having reported the incident to all proper authorities, there was nothing more to do. He had to get on with his life, and dusty hotels and boring lectures comprised a decent chunk of it. He didn’t like it, but then again, he didn’t have to.
* * *
Expansion. The subject of intense speculation and research, and still no unified explanation. So vague even the terminology is nebulous. Dark matter, dark energy. A dynamic version known as quintessence. More recently dark fluid, an attempt to unify the unknowns into just one. All of it extremely speculative, and impossible to quantify.
Dean Eckert leafed through his notes on ‘expansion’, finding himself nervous and bored in equal parts. The nerves, he’d been expecting. He was never much for public speaking, and he loathed dealing with strangers. Particularly large numbers of them. As for the boredom, that had less to do with the act of speaking, and more to the subject matter he was speaking on. He personally found the topic dry and banal, but he was professional enough to deliver what they were asking for without complaint. If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, as they say. Smoke and mirrors. Performance art.
He was still intensely upset by the loss of his better work. He’d have cancelled if he thought he could get away with it, but this seminar was a last minute arrangement by a generous benefactor, and it’d been made abundantly clear by his bosses that he was to give them his best. He tried to see the bright side—it’d be good to get his mind off the loss. And it was pleasant to get out of the bad weather and down to a more southerly realm, where the sun was always shining, and the people seemed to have an unnatural optimism. Can’t complain much about that, he thought.
Now the expansion theory itself is being put to the test, he’d begin, nodding sagely and pretending his listeners were engaged. What if everyone was wrong? What if they had no clue as to what was really going on out there? What would be the consequences for all of us stuck here waiting for the inevitable?
Time to start. He felt that first-hill rollercoaster stomach he hated so much, along with a twinge of vertigo that made him hold back a moment from taking the stage. When he finally walked out, to a smattering of golf claps, his mind was a thousand miles away, his body fully engaged in the panic of the moment.
He reminded himself that he’d be okay, so long as he didn’t pass out or throw up. Low bar, he thought, trying to amuse himself into relaxing. It didn’t work.
“Good morning,” he began, willing his voice to remain steady.
Some of the attendees droned noncommittal good morning’s back at him, others were too sleepy or too preoccupied to care.
Dean didn’t much care either. He just wanted to get it over with. “It’s great to be with you,” he lied, “hopefully my talk will be enthralling enough to keep you all awake.” The attempt at levity fell on deaf ears. His own were ringing. He tried to focus on a spot halfway across the room, as he’d learned in a speech training seminar, but only managed to give himself a pretty bad case of tunnel-vision.
As he stumbled through his introductory notes, his eyes fell upon a brunette woman in the front row. The distraction, interestingly enough, was what it took to bring his focus into the here and now. After an additional moment of self-doubt, he began to feel as though she were genuinely interested in his lecture, which gave him the confidence to assume others might be, as well. It was the first break he’d given himself since the start, and it felt good.
After the lecture was done, Dean lingered at the edge of the stage, fielding questions from anyone who bothered to stay behind. He didn’t see the pretty woman among them, much to his disappointment, but he did spot her in the corridor after the others had left.
“Hello Dr. Eckert,” she said, coming up on his right shoulder so silently that he gave a start and dropped his notes. “Oh, sorry,” she continued as the papers fluttered down around them, “…let me help you with those.”
Eckert bent down and gathered up the materials, flustered and looking up at her with an idiotic expression, making him appear inept on top of it all.
“Thanks,” he said, snatching up as many papers as he could, “I guess you have a question for me?”
She looked at him with a sideways glance, sizing him up. It was somewhat disconcerting.
“From my talk? You wanted to ask me something?”
“Oh, that’s not why I’m here, Dr. Eckert,” she said coolly, handing over the last of his spillage, “it’s not exactly my field of expertise.”
“Oh?” Dean said, wondering if that was a bad sign. “What’s your field?”
“Criminal justice,” the woman replied. “I’m not a student,” she added, as if the fact were self-evident, “I work for the government.”
This conversation was getting weird. He wondered if he should bow out, knowing he was dealing with an odd duck. Why would she be here at all, if not for the lecture?
She reached into her jacket and pulled out a portable device, “this will help explain things.”
He looked at the display. His first page of research, his missing research, leapt off the screen.
“Jesus, where’d you get that? Wait, forget that. I need you to send it to me.”
“Easy there, Dr. Eckert. I don’t think you quite understand the situation yet.”
What’s to understand? “I know you’ve gotten your hands on my property, and I’d like to get it back, Ms.?”
“I’m Jo,” she said, “and it’s not that simple.”
“Look, Jo, I don’t want to have to call the police or anything, but—”
“Go ahead,” she said casually.
A bluff? Who was this girl kidding.
As if to answer his thought, two uniformed officers came out from around the corner behind Jo, standing at rest as if she’d just summoned them.
She glanced back. “There they are. You can go tell them now, if you like.”
His first instinct was to lash out, tell her where to stick her attitude. And to take her cops with her when she left. But she had something he desperately wanted, and that made the dynamic different. He could piss and moan about fairness until he turned blue, but if this woman had control over the police, there wasn’t a hell of a lot he could do about it. At least not before going out and finding himself a lawyer.
Against his gut wishes, he decided to hear what she had to say. There was no harm in that, he figured, and at least he might start getting closer to how his data was sabotaged in the first place. Now that he knew who was behind it, or one of the culprits anyway, he could start his own investigation after speaking with her.
“Should we go somewhere and talk, then?” he asked, trying to keep the agitation out of his voice.
“I though we could take a drive,” she answered, “if that’s okay with you?”
He motioned for her to lead the way. The cops stepped back and they walked out the main entrance. A blazing red sports-car was parked in a no-parking zone, with two more cops there to keep an eye on it. Who is this person? He was starting to feel like he’d stepped into a Bond movie. He had no idea how accurate that assumption would prove.
* * *
Jo didn’t call off the cops this time, opting instead for a high speed escort. Not that she needed one, but she felt like it would drive home just how important it was for the scientist to give her his cooperation. Plus sometimes she just liked to feel some support out there. She so often acted and worked alone, it was nice to feel part of a team.
The squad cars were having a hard time keeping up, so she had to hang back slightly. Dr. Eckert was hanging on for dear life, one hand clutched around the seatbelt and the other pushing firmly against the A-pillar. As if that would do anything to keep him from being squashed like a bug in any sort of impact at this speed. Still, whatever kept him happy.
“Sorry to drag you away from the convention,” she said, her own hands resting casually on the wheel and the stick, “I hope I didn’t ruin your lunch plans back there.”
He looked momentarily surprised, then angry. “It’s okay, we took care of it for you.”
He looked over at her, undecided. He didn’t know what to make of this whole thing, but his eyes betrayed the fact that he was impressed with everything so far, all other sentiments aside. “Took care of it how?”
“Told them you were called away on urgent government business.”
He thought for a moment. “Is that what this is?”
She didn’t answer.
“I think I have the right to some answers here,” he pressed, “given the fact that you’ve stolen my research.”
“Stolen is such a harsh word, Dr. Eckert,” she said, adjusting herself a little further back and down into the seat, “think of it as appropriated. There are extenuating circumstances that require unorthodox methods. You’ll see.”
I really don’t–”
“You saved your work, didn’t you?”
“Well, I…yes, of course I saved it.”
“In numerous places, so you wouldn’t fall victim to a crash?”
“Yes, I did. But I really don’t see—
“And they wiped it all out, didn’t they?”
Dean Eckert fell silent.
“What you did, Dr. Eckert, was to make it a cakewalk for your enemies. You practically gave them a trail of breadcrumbs. What we have here is a safe copy. Untraceable. Off line. Impossible to copy. So long as it’s in our hands, it can’t be in anyone elses.”
Dean remained silent, but nodded, starting to get it.
“And now it’s our job to get it to a safe place where nobody can get us, because getting their hands on you is the next best thing to getting your research.”
“I don’t see why that should be,” he said, but it was a half-hearted objection.
“You’ve got all the data they need up there,” she said, pointing to his head, “and that means you’re in great danger, doctor.”
He didn’t get it, but nodded anyway. Then he shook his head in the negative, turning red in the process. “Hang on just a second, if you think—”
He broke off the comment, or more appropriately it morphed into a scream as he realized they’d come to the end of the road, literally. The escort had backed off about a mile back, and just as they crested the hill they were on a beach, driving headlong into water.
Rather than hit the breaks as expected, Jo accelerated, reaching up with her stick hand to flip two dashboard switches, then a third as soon as they hit the waves. The first two actions prepared the submersible, and the final switch took care of the tires, flattening them out so the vehicle skimmed the surface, then dipped under. All this time, Dean Eckert was still screaming, though with the realization that they were breathing normally and still relatively stable after all that, the scream died in his throat.
Jo laughed. “Sorry about that, I’ve never had the chance to do it with a stranger before. I thought it’d be a kick. Got your motor running, didn’t it?”
He looked over at her like she was crazy, which prompted a wide grin. “Bet you feel like you’re in a Bond movie about now, huh?”
“You could say that,” he croaked, white-knuckling the belt even harder than before.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not the villain. Not one you need to worry about, anyway.”
“Colonel Douglas, the material you are about to see is codeword clear. You’ve been temporarily authorized, but you’re subject to the usual stipulations for material above your grade. You understand that?”
“Of course,” Shane replied, keeping with the formality. As long as he was being pulled down this rabbit hole, no sense in giving them any more access into his thought process than necessary. Still, they’d piqued his curiosity with the rigamarole. It wasn’t often that his loyalty was in question. His status as a living legend was solid, and unimpeachable. Not only was he publicly known, he had been decorated for valor—given his several years in a re-education camp from which he came out the other end unscathed, he’d already been well tested. The sort of toughness it took to survive such an ordeal was born, not bred. It was significant that they would put him through these sorts of tests.
“You’ve been selected for an ongoing project which is now reaching a critical phase,” continued the interviewer. “While we can offer need-to-know details, the most important thing to understand is that progress thus far isn’t comprehensive. You’re being brought in precisely because the project is missing key elements, elements that we believe you can provide. You follow so far?”
“Far as I can,” Douglas said, reclining into his chair with the expectation that things might take a while. He silently bid the briefing agent to continue.
The woman nodded. “What little I can tell you about the project is that it’s a multi-national effort, spans several decades, and that’s only phase one. That phase is now coming to an end. Okay?”
“Okay,” Shane repeated, hoping she’d skip to the point sooner rather than later.
“We’re entering into phase two ahead of plan, due to circumstances out of our control, and we have to expand in as comprehensive a manner as we can, as fast as we can. Okay?”
“Okay,” Douglas said, more slowly this time, “except you haven’t told me jack. I assume you’re aware of that?”
“I am. These are the hoops we have to jump through. All of us, not just yourself. The legalities are extremely specific, worked out by a multi-national—”
“—team of politicians and lawyers. Yeah, I figured as much. Go on.”
“Thank you for understanding. Now, from the testing phase, phase two moves into the realm of species-critical decision making which…”
“Okay, you can stop there,”—Douglas waved his hands like he was directing air traffic, staring into the corners of the room—“whoever’s behind this, you got me. You can come out now.”
“I’m afraid I don’t—”
“The joke. It’s over, you’ve got me. Species-critical is a nice touch, now it’s time to get out the cameras or pop out from the closets or whatever and give me the punch line. Okay?”
“Colonel Douglas, do you really think we’d have aborted your billion dollar mission just to play a joke?”
“‘Course not,” Douglas replied, “but I suppose that’s what makes it so goddamned funny.”
“Having trouble coping?”
“You could say that.”
Shane Douglas was a professional, but he needed this singular moment of sarcasm, if only to preserve his own sanity. Just one minute, for himself. He knew in his gut it was his last chance at levity for a long time. Maybe ever.
Move on, Douglas, he told himself.
“Okay, gimme the rest of it…”
* * *
The bond-car/submarine motored deeper, cutting through the water easily, powerful headlights illuminating the undulating seascape before them. As if this couldn’t get any more bizarre, Dean saw something up ahead. If he didn’t know any better he’d guess it was a submerged building. Heading closer, he realized it was more of a legit skyscraper—minus the sky part—extending down into the murk. Floodlights indicated even more levels below the inky dark.
Jo pointed and said, “Wilkerson Seabase. The most sophisticated seismic observatory on the planet, among other things. Cost the navy a pretty penny to build this thing.”
“Military, huh?” Dean quipped, “I never would’ve guessed.”
Jo shot him an annoyed look, not impressed with his wit. He tried another tack. “So you’re military, then?” he said as casually as he could manage in such un-casual conditions.
“Me?” She laughed. “No. Definitely not. I’m a visitor, just like you.”
As if to highlight that fact, two lethal-looking submarines emerged from the depths, steering straight at them and blocking their course.
“Uh, oh,” she said. But she didn’t sound particularly nervous. The piercing glow of laser sights pointing their way, however, terrified the hell out of Dean. Jo leaned over, flipped open a center console Dean hadn’t noticed, and picked up a radio set. She slipped it over her head and spoke calmly. “Tell your boss the OTDA is here. She’s expecting us.”
Those appeared to be the magic words. The lasers winked out, and the subs veered off, giving them a clear path to the whateveritwas out there. They surged forward.
“OTD…?” Dean asked, amazed that she seemed to have control over whatever authorities were in charge down here.
“OTDA,”—she flipped a switch, first rocking the craft, then stabilizing it—“Offworld Threat Defense Agency.”
“Oh,” he said. Somehow that bizarre answer seemed to make sense. Of course she worked for an agency straight out of science fiction, what could be more natural?
Claustrophobia was beginning to overcome him. It wasn’t in his normal physiological nature to feel that way, but this was no ordinary situation. As they approached what was fast starting to look like a city under the sea, he realized they weren’t planning to surface anytime soon. His survival instincts were in overdrive. Fight or flight, pal, you’re going to die you know.
* * *
Shane whistled. He was privileged to be examining these readouts—judging from the levels of clearance plastered all over—but it wasn’t the secrecy that impressed him. It was the numbers. The sheer volume of research must have cost a decent fraction of the black budget, and taken years, maybe decades to process. If not for the unpleasant conclusion it reached, he might have enjoyed reading this monumental effort. But the results were sobering.
Now he knew why they’d been so desperate to recall him, even running the risk of blowing him up to do so. His knowledge of near-Earth space phenomena would be needed in the planning phases if they were to have any hope. He whistled again.
“Who else knows about this?” He didn’t expect a straight answer, but was surprised to learn that his briefer knew even less about the matter than he. Assuming she was to be believed. She gave no names, suggested no leads, and apologized for her lack of knowledge several times.
“Okay, what can you tell me that isn’t already here in front of me?”
On that, she was more helpful. She gave a handful of tentative timelines and hoped-for objectives. But none of those had been committed to the charts yet, which meant they were obviously still putting things together. Would probably be doing so for quite some time to come.
* * *
They approached the structure at a decent clip, and the margin of error seemed razor thin. They skirted the wall of the structure close enough to make Dean flinch, which gave Jo a laugh. Though he feared they might actually hit the thing, Jo was obviously an expert pilot. She kept them flush to the side and ran halfway around in a semi-circle. There were windows here and there, and Dean saw people inside. Most were sitting at desks, doing paperwork Of all the things, he thought. It might have been an ordinary office building if not for the liquid exterior. If he’d been in a city, on a window washer’s lift or a helicopter or something, the sight would’ve seemed perfectly normal.
They came to an opening, and Jo steered them nearly sideways and right into it, shutting down the power so they drifted slightly before hitting the deck with a thunk that echoed off the walls. A sliding wall closed them off from the ocean beyond, and the waters quickly receded. Within a couple of minutes, the chamber was bone dry.
Jo cracked open the door and stepped out. “Coming?” she called back as she walked away.
Dean was still half afraid he’d drown if he touched the door, even though his eyes insisted he was in a perfectly safe, hangar-like space. It took an extreme mental effort for him to reach over and open his door, pushing hard to break the seal and feeling droplets of water fall onto his shoulder. It was like stepping out after a hard rain, no more frightening than that. The air smelled slightly stale, but other than that it seemed, strange as it might sound, perfectly normal.
He walked around the car—he was able to think of it as a car now, as it had lost any boat-like characteristics upon arrival—and hurried to catch up with Jo. The two of them were almost to the exit door when it flung open and a tall, imposing woman strode in.
“Just who in the hell do you think you are?” she shouted, coming to a dead stop between them and the door. “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you out of the water.”
Dean stood silent. He was still disoriented, and stunned by the commanding nature of the woman standing in front of him. Jo, on the other hand, didn’t look impressed. “Hello, admiral,” she said, “thought I might find you here.”
“You’re lucky it was me. Not everyone waits for a hostile to identify herself before launching torpedoes.”
“I had faith,” Jo quipped. Then she continued more seriously, “I knew they wouldn’t have put just anyone in charge of this situation. Anyway, I brought the package.”
Dean looked around, expecting her to produce something to hand over. Then he realized she was talking about him, and gulped. The admiral circled around, looking him over, making him suddenly feel extremely overweight and unkempt. After the wild ride to get here, he had to assume he looked the worse for wear.
“What’s this all about, then?” she boomed, making him jump, he hoped only on the inside for the most part.
“Dr. Dean Eckert,” Jo said, “the man who bucked the trend and found out our little secret. And all by himself, too.”
“That’s fine, but you could’ve brought him through regular channels like the others.”
Others? The fact that he wasn’t the lone suspect in this bizarre stageplay somehow struck him as a comfort.
“They say priority, I go priority. That’s the way I roll,” Jo replied with pride. Dean wondered if she’d just been looking to show off, using that submersible gadget instead of whatever regular channels might be. But he didn’t say so.
The admiral asked no further questions, just a dismissive cluck sound as she looked back at Dean.
“Follow me,” she commanded.
He complied. They’d only moved a couple of steps when he realized Jo wasn’t moving. He gave her a head jerk, trying to get her to move, already. He wasn’t sure what she was trying to accomplish, but he had no doubt this admiral lady wouldn’t like it.
The woman gave Jo a withering stare, but she held her ground. “The keys,” she demanded, holding out her an opened palm to emphasize the demand.
This elicited a smile, surprisingly enough. “Your…car will be perfectly safe with my people,” she said, allowing a touch of sickly sweet into her voice.
“I’m sure that’s true,” Jo said, “but even so,”—she beckoned towards herself, a clear if non-verbal demand—“I’ll take the keys, please.”
The admiral looked ready to protest, then her face went steely and she handed them over. “Follow me.”
Jo went along, protesting no further. Eckert wondered whether they were for accessing the docking bay, or perhaps some way to extricate the car. Or a failsafe switch to blow it all up. Anything seemed possible, though he had little time to wonder further as they hurried down the corridors into the belly of this incredible, undersea beast.