The atmosphere was tense as the Site Director was shown into the Control Room. There were two researchers were waiting. One of them offered the Site Director a seat. “Please, Sir…”
The Site Director declined: “No thank you, I, uh…” He glanced around. The Control Room was large but cramped, filled with banks of screens, dials and keyboards, flickering gently. “I just want to see what you’ve got here” the Site Director said, turning to the Lead Researcher, who had followed in behind him.
“It’s really very simple” the Lead Researcher said, smiling. The Site Director frowned. The Lead Researcher amended his claim, “If, of course, you are familiar with the latest in High-Energy Quantum Realignment.” The Site Director still frowned. “And I am sure you are, Mr Carter.” The Lead Researcher smiled again.
“How does it work?” said the Site Director, gruffly.
“Well… it’s very…” The Lead Researcher stopped himself from saying ‘simple…’ “It’s a matter of creating a controlled improbability field. Here” he said, pointing to one of the larger screens in front of them, “we’ve managed to rig up a device below in Lab 34 that can concentrate artificial Hume Rays to the fourth power on an object and unlock the…” He had a second thought. “I say ‘we’ though I should point out the development was mostly Stenson’s work…”
The Lead Researcher gestured to a young man lurking shyly in the corner of the room. “He’s a junior on this wing but he’s your man.”
The Site Director looked the Young Man up and down coolly. He was short, thin, with cropped dark hair. The Site Director asked the Young Man, “Is it all set up?” The Young Man nodded. “Then I guess you better press the button” said the Site Director, “or whatever it is…?”
“Yes, you… come on…”
Stenson stepped forward to the controls while the Site Director peered at the screen. The device looked like a cross between an x-ray machine and a dentist’s chair. “What’s the object?” It wasn’t clear, even at 1080 pixels.
“It’s, uh…” Stenson stuttered quietly, adjusting the controls. “It’s a sugar cube.”
“Fine” said the Site Director, “zoom in…” He leaned back and folded his arms. “Show me what you can do with your sugar cube.” Stenson set the experiment going. The screen was silent. Nothing happened except brief flashes and occasional interference that soon stopped. “Is that it?” the Site Director asked.
“It’s done” said Stenson. He stepped away from the controls and shrank back.
“We’ll wait for the improbability to cool down” the Lead Researcher said. “When it’s safe we can bring it to you, Sir…”
“The sugar cube…?”
“It won’t be a sugar cube” said the Lead Researcher.
Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the Site Director’s office door. “Come in…” It was the Lead Researcher and Stenson. The latter was carrying a small metal box. “Doctor Khalid, Mr Stenson, you have my sugar cube?”
“Not any more” said Lead Researcher Khalid. He nodded to Stenson, who put the box down carefully on the Site Director’s desk.
“This is safe, right?” the Site Director asked.
“Of course, Sir” said the Lead Researcher. “We’ve checked. It’s well within background levels of probability.”
Stenson opened the box and peeled back the lid. Inside was mostly dark packing foam but in the middle was a small, light brown cube, about two or three centimetres tall. The Site Director picked the cube up and looked at it. “It’s light” he said. “What is it?”
“We’re not sure” said Stenson, “but preliminary tests suggest it’s a piece of bark.”
The Site Director took a moment to contemplate then exclaimed “Fantastic…!”
“It is?” Stenson asked.
“It is” the Site Director repeated. “Can you repeat it, the test…?”
“We’ve already done it a hundred and seventy three times” said the Lead Researcher, “though obviously not with the same results.”
“Of course not” said the Site Director, smiling broadly, still contemplating the cube. “This is incredible…” the Site Director said. Both the researchers smiled, happy. “This is a new age. You have just revolutionised modern warfare.” Both the researchers’ smiles sank.
“What do you mean ‘warfare’?” Stenson asked.
They had been travelling for some time, a few hours at least. There was no daylight to tell in the back of the van. It was hot too. Jose figured they were in the desert. They had to be.
There was no talking, the armed guard saw to that. Jose had a lot of time to think about the bargain he had struck. It seemed too good to be true but he took it anyway. Jose had been busted three years before, in a raid. Some of his friends got away. Some of them managed to get good lawyers. The Feds had got him though. He took a plea bargain, two years. Then there was the incident in prison, twenty-five-to-life, and he was lucky to get that. He would have been an old man by the time he got out, almost fifty, but now he was free, his record expunged, a fresh start, even a fresh suit. All he had to do was take part in an experiment.
There were two other people in the back. There was big shaven-headed white guy, middle-aged, mean-looking. He seemed to be hiding some tattoos. He was bigger than Jose. He looked a lot like the guy Jose had to fight off. Then there was a black guy, older too and also well-built. He was growing out an afro but seemed to be dressed as a mock-cowboy, an odd combination of denim and leather. He wondered if the other two had made deals.
Suddenly the ride got bumpy. The truck was off-road. The three passengers glanced around at the other. The Skinhead seemed to glare at Jose. He didn't say anything though. The truck eventually circled, slowed then stopped. There was a moment’s piercing silence before the doors swung open and the world was filled with warmth and dry light. A voice said “Out, all of you…!” Jose’s eyes took a moment to adjust. More armed men were waiting for them. Some were holding rifles. They looked like soldiers but they weren’t in normal uniform, black and grey all over. The trio and their guard got out of the truck.
Jose looked around, trying to get a sense of the place. Where they were at was wide and flat. On one side there were low mountains in the far distance. The sky was bright blue, cloudless.
“Uncuff them” said the Voice. It came from a man, short, leathery and gruff. He had the look of an officer, at least to Jose. Each of the passengers had their handcuffs removed. Jose sighed and rubbed his wrists.
“Where’s my stuff?” said the Mock-Cowboy.
“Later” said the Officer. “Follow me.” He gestured and started walking. Jose then noticed a brick wall a few yards away, tiny and vulnerable against the vast backdrop. Jose hesitated then felt hands under his armpits.
“Hey…!” he shrugged off the two soldiers trying to hustle him along. He called out to the Officer, “What’s going on here?” The Officer turned and frowned:
“Experiment, Mr Boreanaz, this way please… Follow me.” He walked toward the brick wall. Jose cringed for a moment. The Officer, whoever he was, used Jose’s surname. The two soldiers tried to grab him:
“Hey, alright, I’m going, I’m going.” Mock-Cowboy was following too but the Skinhead wasn’t:
“Fuck this, man!” he growled. Everyone turned to look. “I ain’t going!” Some of the soldiers turned their guns on him. The Skinhead adopted a hostile posture but the Officer was not afraid. Maybe a foot shorter than him, the Officer strode calmly up to the Skinhead and calmly asked:
“Mr O’Brien, what is your problem?”
“Y’all gonna kill us, stick us right up against that wall and shoot us.”
“You were on death row when we found you, Mr O’Brien. If we wanted to kill you we’d take you to the chamber. But here we are…” he gestured to the wide open space. “You can go back if you want…?” He smiled a thin smile. But the Skinhead was not deterred.
“Why y’all pointing guns at us…?”
The Officer nodded as if he had a point. “Guys” he lowered his hands. His subordinates lowered their weapons. “Please” he said softly, “after this you’ll be a free man… You will all be free men.” The Skinhead eventually relented. The group slowly made its way to the brick wall, the lonely wall. “Wait here, please” said the Officer when they arrived.
“What is going to happen?” Jose wondered. He wasn't sure whether he said it out loud until the Officer replied:
“It's a climatic test...”
“What…?” said the Mock-Cowboy.
“Why us…?” Jose wondered.
“The atmosphere” said the Officer, ignoring Jose. Some of the armed men were walking away. Two of them began setting up some equipment. The Officer remained.
Jose glanced at the Skinhead, who was frowning away into the distance. “They gonna kill us” said the Skinhead. He growled at the floor then turned to face the Officer. It seemed for a moment like he was going to square up again.
“Nobody is going to be killed” said the Officer, smiling now. “You have my word... My men here are setting up a small weather station” he gestured to the device being assembled. “However I'm told we require witnesses, direct eyewitnesses to the experiment...” He shrugged. “All you have to do is... just remain here... here, for twenty minutes...”
“Twenty minutes...?” said the Mock-Cowboy.
“Twenty-three minutes to be precise” said the Officer, glancing at what could have been a watch, “and after that we'll be back to collect you.” He asked the men putting together the weather station, “You guys done?” They almost were. “We will be coming from that direction” he said, pointing to an impossibly small hummock a mile or two away. “Gentlemen...” he saluted them, turned on his heel, and marched back to the van.
“But why us...?” Jose wondered again, but the Officer didn't hear him.
There were two bright flashes in quick succession. The President flinched, despite the protection, despite having been warned. “What’s that…?” A bright ball expanded quickly but briefly, full of whorls and shards and radiating waves. They had told him about this. It looked for a moment it might engulf their bunker but the ball evaporated suddenly and soundlessly, like a soap bubble. There was a moment’s silence. The dust didn’t settle outside because it seemed nothing had been disturbed. Awed, the President took his protective goggles off and turned to the Site Director.
“What did you see, Mr President?” said the Site Director, smiling up at the Commander in Chief. The President paused, looked to his aides then back again. He chewed on his words for a moment. He needed something resonant. The chances were someone would remember what he said:
“I think…” he said, “I think we have seen the end of the world as we know it.”
“Brilliant, isn’t it?” said the Site Director, flushed with pride.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘brilliant…’” the President retorted softly.
“Well, um” the Site Director equivocated, “we haven’t examined Ground Zero yet. It will only be a few minutes before probability…”
“I’m talking about the danger, the costs, the risks, the responsibility this places on the American Government” the President said. One of his aides nodded audibly at this.
“We understand those risks, Sir” said the Site Director. “But I think we also understand the potential here of the Carter-Stenson Device.” He glanced around behind him for support but his colleagues hesitated.
“Yes” the President. He paced slowly, with considered gestures in the space available. “This is your doing, isn’t it?”
“Indeed, Sir…” said the Site Director, “our team… we’ve been working on it for quite some time now.”
“With human subjects…?”
“Volunteers, yes” said the Site Director, “for the past three months…”
“These guys have permission…?” the President asked one of his aides.
“They do” the aide confirmed.
“All volunteers” said the Site Director, “most have been from the prison system. They know what they’re getting into.”
“They know about that…?” said the President, a little shocked. He stopped pacing.
“Not the finer details, obviously” said the Site Director, a little anxious. “Look, Sir…” he closed the gap between himself and the President. “These are prisoners not model citizens, they’re bad guys…” whispering the last two words.
“I see” the President said eventually, “but I want oversight, direct oversight from now on.”
“Of course, Sir” said the Site Director.
“How long before this is weapon-ready?”
“It depends what type of weapon you want?” said the Site Director. The President said nothing. “But we’re at a late stage” the Site Director added. “We’re can modify but not necessarily control the outcomes at the moment... We're talking…” he groped for a figure, “a year, maybe two.”
“Is there anyone out there trying to develop something like this?”
“I don’t know, but…”
“Brodsky” the President said to one of his aides, “get on to the CIA…” He turned back to the Site Director. “One other thing I want… before you show me Ground Zero…”
“I want the files on every volunteer on my desk before noon tomorrow.”
“OK…” said the Site Director, “my associate” he glanced back, “Dr Khalid will see to that. If Sir is ready though I think we can visit the site now, it should be safe.” He shuttled the President toward the bunker door.
Out of the bunker and into heat of the day, the Site Director asked if the President would like to take a car.
“Let’s walk” he said. “I like the fresh air” the President. “The air is fresh, isn’t it?”
The Site Director sighed. The President’s scepticism was getting wearing. “Please, Dr Khalid” he asked, “What is the current Hume reading?”
Dr Khalid consulted a tablet. He said “0.18 here… up to 0.24 at Ground Zero but falling all the time.”
“What does that mean, Dr Khalid?” the President asked.
“It’s slightly above background probability” Dr Khalid confirmed.
“Much like the congressional elections” the President joked. There was a ripple of polite laughter across the entourage. He nodded to his bodyguards, “Demitri, Garry, let’s roll…”
The desert floor before was a mix of salt, sand and small rocks. Now it was a swirling mat of green and purple of tiny buds and fronds. “What is that?” the President asked.
“We don’t know for certain” said the Site Director, “but it’s best not to touch.” One of the President’s bodyguards looked like he was about to pick a bit of mat. “We get it a lot after tests. It looks like a plant… Dr Khalid…?”
Dr Khalid picked up the thread. “Well, I’m not an expert but it’s a photosynthesising entity with similar structures to plant life…”
The President: “But…?”
“It uses a different light-fixing chemical” said Dr Khalid. We’re honing in on the formula but it seems to excrete a weak form of sulphur dioxide.”
“We tear most of it up afterwards and dispose of it” said the Site Director.
“And this is due to merging wave functions?” asked the President.
“Mr President, you’ve been reading up I see…”
“I’m familiar with the basics” said the President, “At least I hope I am…”
“There are hypotheses” said Dr Khalid. He moved closer to the President, inching his way into the discussion. “Some people say that it might be a shadow biosphere.”
“Uh-huh” the President nodded.
“There’s not much of a regular biosphere on this salt-flat” the Site Director offered. There was a short pause, then:
“And, um, where’s the other guy?” the President asked.
“You said ‘Carter-Stenson…’” the President pointed out. “You’re Carter…” The Site Director smiled. “Where’s Stenson…?” His smile fell.
“He’s gone” said the Site Director.
“Retired, left the programme…”
“Why…?” asked the President.
“Your guess is as good as mine” said the Site Director, shrugging. “It’s been going so well…”
After a few more minutes walking the brick wall started coming into focus. “What are we going to see, what are we looking at here? I can see… Is that the device…?”
“Mr President, Sir, if you hold on…” It wasn’t obvious.
“Where are the volunteers?”
“Oh, they’re around alright” said the Site Director. “Look…” he pointed to what looked like a set of shadows. “See…?” The President couldn’t see. There were three shadows, human-shaped and fairly tall. There was device as well, an unobtrusive looking stack of boxes and wires that looked like someone’s old hi-fi. The President still couldn’t see so the Site Director asked, “Where is the sun right now?” the Site Director pointed. It was more or less above them. Then one of the shadows moved. The President’s jaw dropped. The shadow shook a fist then waved its arms. The other two shadows then moved, rolling in frantic gestures. “They’d better get used to it” said the Site Director, “they will be sharing accommodation a while.”
“Don’t tell me everything, just… gimme the facts, the real facts…” Still the same handsome face, the same soft voice but there was something different about the President. He snapped his fingers at Carla-Ann, his personal secretary.
“Mr President, Sir…” she hesitated, “there’s footage on the internet…” the President rolled his eyes. Carla-Ann persisted. “It was placed on a sharing-website a little less than twenty-four hours ago. It appears to show a beached humpback whale being transformed into a large, um… tentacular creature…” The President shrugged. It wasn’t enough. Carla-Ann continued. “The footage is consistent with a high-energy quantum realignment event…”
The President thought about it for a second then realised. “That’s our thing, right… the secret thing…?”
“Yes, Sir” said Carla-Ann, “the secret thing, but… maybe not ours anymore…”
“What do you mean?”
“We have reason to believe the footage was shot in North Korea” said Carla-Ann. This cast a pall over the President. He fell silent, staring, dumbly. Eventually he came to:
“May I see it?”
Carla-Ann anticipated this. She had a laptop with her.
“They say seeing believing…” said the President.
“Not necessarily” said Carla-Ann, “but…” She laid the laptop on the President’s desk, the video was already cued. She pressed play and stood back. The President gawped:
“It’s not doing anything…” Carla-Ann had to press play again. The President gawped once more, this time at the footage, blurry, digital, silent, but quite clearly showing a beached whale. There was very little background. The camera was zoomed in on the poor creature panting and flapping. The President, pouting, was about to get impatient when there were two bright flashes and distortion on the screen, followed by a fast-expanding, swirling dome of light. “Oh my god” said the President. The dome evaporated leaving behind what looked a gigantic black, leathery sea anemone. There was some residual distortion washing over the screen, seemingly as the anemone’s tentacles lashed. The camera zoomed out a little and some of the context was revealed, stony flatlands, a background of grey-beige hills and small black dots that might have been distant towers. The camera shook a little. The anemone was crawling, its foot writing across the ground. The footage ended there.
The President looked up at his Secretary in shock. “Someone’s stolen our weapon…”
“Well…” Carla-Ann equivocated then went with it. “It’s entirely possible but…”
“Do we have oversight at, what’s the project called…?”
“PA/DSL…? We have monthly reports sent to your office, Mr President” Carla-Ann closed the laptop. “But I think…”
“We gotta find out who did this” said the President; he fist-bumped the table.
“And we will…” said Carla-Ann.
“Good” the President. He sat back and folded his arms.
“There’s the other issue, Sir, of… how we respond to this?” said Carla-Ann. This didn’t quite register with the President. She tried again. “The North Koreans have a weapon of mass destruction…”
“I see” said the President. He uncrossed his hands and sat forward again. “Do my hands look small…?”
“Sir, please” said Carla-Ann, her exasperation boiling over, “listen to what I am saying…”
“I am a good listener” said the President, absently. “You’ve just gotta give me something to listen to. Just… keep it coming” he clicked his fingers again.
Carla-Ann sighed then resumed. “The North Koreans have a new weapon of mass destruction. This footage is unlikely to have been just leaked. It was uploaded using a proxy-server with proven connections to Room 39. This is a challenge, Sir. America must respond.”
There was a pause before the President asked “What do we do?”
“We need pressure on the Chinese” said Carla-Ann. The President scoffed. “As much as we can muster” Carla-Ann added. “We need them on board. We need to renew contact with agents inside the country, get as much information as we can. We need spy satellites with Carter-Stenson detecting capabilities. We need atrocity stories in our media to remind people just how bad the regime is. We need to double our marine patrols in the area and then let the world know that we’re willing and able to retaliate if the regime doesn’t back down…” The President nodded through the list. Thought about it for a moment, then said:
“First we get on to the lab. I want to know who leaked this thing…!”
Peter Stenson was waiting for his PHd proposal to be accepted when he took a part-time job in a government-funded project, called Planned Accidents/Despite Straight Lines (PA/DSL). The work was interesting. There had been research into Enhanced Probability going back decades. All he had done is find a way to control and focus the process, create predictable unpredictability. The first thing he did was develop Reality stabilisers, dense iron-nickel sheets, difficult to shift but vital to contain the experiments. Then he found a way to focus the rays using magnetised vacuums. There were so many uses for his invention but it seemed the government only wanted one.
Peter was drafted full-time to PA/DSL where they made him into a torturer. There no structure you couldn’t invert, nothing and no one you couldn’t merge the wave functions of. The dreadful hybrids they made were scored in his mind, the man with insect compound eyes, the man fused with back end of a horse, woman with electrical wires sprouting from her head that pulsed with her every thought. They were never far from his mind.
It was not as if he could lay his troubles down. He’d signed so many contracts with so many secrecy clauses. What could he say when he spoke to his parents on the phone or when he talked with his girlfriend at night? Even the site pastor and staff psychologist were off limits.
Peter eventually applied to leave. His superiors seemed surprised. Mr Carter the Site Manager was upset but, after lots more meetings and signing lots more confidentiality clauses and agreeing to annual assessments with the FBI, Peter was eventually released. They gave him a good severance package too. He thought about maybe taking a year off then perhaps completing his studies, but he’d already been awarded a doctorate (the project saw to that). Instead he moved back to Southern California with his girlfriend, Emma, who was only too happy to be back in civilisation. There he started a laser cutting and design firm and tried his best to be normal.
By day he was occupied but at night his mind could go anywhere. It went back, time and again, to the lab where he had worked. There were maddening dreams, horrific slide shows, bisected heads, sentient limbs, black vomit, brutalised bodies and broken minds rising up to pursue him. Then the dreams started seeping into waking life. People passing by in the street would turn into victims. Dogs would bark his name. Silent phone calls would menace him. Lying in bed Peter would find his hands creeping up his chest as if to strangle him. By the time he realised his flat was changing every time he went home and that Emma hadn’t existed for nearly two weeks it was too late. Months of terror passed, or didn’t, until finally one day there was a knock at his front door like thunder across a mountain Peter hesitated to respond. There was a Voice:
“Mr Stenson…?” It sounded like a woman. “Are you there…?” Was the Voice real? “I want to help you…” said the Voice.
Peter opened his door on the chain. It was a woman. “Who are you…?” She looked a bit like Emma, but she couldn’t be her.
“I’m a friend” said the Woman, smiling the gentlest of smiles. “I want to help.” There was a soft, warm light behind her.
“You can’t help me” Peter said. He almost shut the door.
“Please” said the Woman, “let me in…” Butterflies wafted in through the crack. Peter broke down, crying pink and gold tears. He sank to the floor “I can help you” said the Woman. Peter looked up. She was inside now, across the threshold somehow. She closed the door, the heavy iron-nickel door, behind her. “But you have to tell me everything.”
“I can’t…” said Peter.
“You must” she said, “if you want to escape.”
Colonel Peabody came into the tent. There was a council meeting going on. “I’m afraid the President won’t be attending” he explained to the men gathered. “Information is need-to-know at the moment but I am given to understand he is being treated for an unknown illness at an undisclosed location…”
“When was the President at this facility?” Major General Abernathy asked. He was chairing the meeting, ironic because there were no chairs.
“About a month ago, Sir” said Peabody.
“Very well, thank you Colonel” said the General. “Come” he gestured for the Colonel to follow him. “Gentlemen” he said to the officers stood gathered round the table in his tent, “we have a problem, a very difficult problem; one that we are facing on our own. Colonel Horvath, what news from the Sea of Japan?”
The Colonel said, “Nothing at the moment from the fleet…”
“Good” said Abernathy. “Well” he added, “not great, but at least that’s one more thing we don’t have to factor in. Now, the problem at hand, this is a containment and rescue job…” he spread his hands across a map laid on the table. “We have an anomaly, a Zone of Anomaly approximately three square miles and spreading at a rate of…?”
“Three feet” said one of the Officers, “a day…”
“Three feet a day” Abernathy repeated gruffly. “So we have time but… we’ll see what else we have. So far this thing’s a big shit sandwich. Now, we’ve not been able to reach anyone inside to speak to them. The Zone of Anomaly has proven impossible to reach by land or by air.” There were murmurs around the table. “I know” the Major General said, “but facts are facts. Lieutenant Dane” he said to another of the men, “what is the update on communications?” The Lieutenant hesitated for a moment. “What is it…?” the Major General asked.
“Nothing, Sir” said Lieutenant Dane.
“Nothing goes in” said the Lieutenant. “All our signals are reflected back instantly.”
“And coming out…?”
“Only one signal is coming out” said the Lieutenant, “continuously…”
“I take it you have a recording?”
“That’s right, Sir” said the Lieutenant. He placed a portable player on the table. He said “A moment, please…” and adjusted some controls.
“No, we’ve got all the time in the world” said the Major General. Eventually a sound emerged, an analogue-like crackle and his. The Lieutenant turned the volume up. There was a voice:
“My name is Doctor Regis Khalid. I am a Lead Researcher within the PA/DSL Quantum Studies Programme, Site 23. I and surviving members of my team are currently trapped in a secure wing within Site 23. There has been a catastrophic event, the full details of which we do not know. Site Director Kevin Carter is missing, presumed dead. I am currently in command. We are surrounded by hostile entities, humanoid shadow creatures and other hazardous anomalies, spatial-temporal as well as dangerous hybrid matter. Of the original twenty members of my team, only twelve remain, two of whom are showing signs of illness and/or anomalous maladaptation. They have been isolated pending recovery or termination. To any government agents or agencies listening we are asking for assistance. Our supplies are low as is our ammunition. Without aid it is unlikely that we will last more than another week. The transmission is wired by dead man's switch to myself, and will be played on a continuous loop until such time that I die. Please help us. Thank you.”
The recording stopped. There was silence around the table. Then the Major General said, “Well, if no one’s got any ideas then let’s all go home! You fellas look like you could use some…”
“Sir” said Colonel Peabody, “perhaps we could use a tactical strike?”
“Nukes” said the General, “are you crazy…? There’re people inside… Fellas, come on…!” The group went through the options, all of which ran up against (un)reality. The Major General looked round the table. He noticed someone. “You, you don’t say much. Who are ya…?”
“Lieutenant Marsden, 504th Brigade, Sir…” He was a small man, thin, with dark cropped hair. He had a quiet voice, so unassuming it was as if he just appeared.
“What do you do…?”
“Military Intelligence” said Lieutenant Marsden, “on secondment from Fort Hood.”
“You sounded like you were far from home” The Major General chuckled. “You guys have been surveying the anomaly…?”
“More than that, Sir, we’ve found a survivor…” said Marsden.
“How is that even...?”
“He is a former employee, retired. His name is Peter Stenson, 34 years old…” this boggled a few round the table. “He is currently an inpatient of the Gateways Mental Health Centre in LA.” There were nervous laughs.
“So he’s in the nuthouse?” said the Major General, “this place is a nuthouse…”
“So…” said Marsden, suddenly sounding like his patience was wearing, “Stenson is the inventor of this device that turns everything screwy. He also knows how the effects can be contained.”
The ward was beautiful, not a word Major General Abernathy used very often. It was beautiful, clean and quiet. “More like a hotel than a nuthouse” he observed. “Are we paying for this?”
“The government is” said Lieutenant Marsden. The pair was waiting in a hallway by a reception desk for the Charge Nurse to arrive.
“Government…” Abernathy grumbled, rolling his eyes. Abernathy did not like waiting. Painfully quiet minutes passed until a voice fluttered out from the silence.
“Sirs…”Abernathy and Marsden turned to face the voice. It was a woman, a young woman in a nurse’s uniform. “My name Charge Nurse Papillon; I’d just like to say…”
“You’re Korean” said Major General Abernathy. Nurse Papillon stuttered. “Right…?” Abernathy pressed his point.
“My mother is Korean, my father…”
“Is French…” said the Major General. “My father was at D Day but he… died… in the Korean War…” said Abernathy. There was a pause. He went from being gruff to lost in thought.
“Thank you for receiving us” said Marsden, interrupting the reverie. “We’re on an important mission.”
“A top secret mission” said Abernathy.
“I understand” said Nurse Papillon with a defensive smile. “And you’d like to speak to…”
“Top secret…” Abernathy repeated.
“I’ll, uh, show you to him…” said Papillon. “Please follow me.” She began walking.
“Thank you Miss Papillon” said Abernathy.
“That’s Ms Papillon” she reiterated. They walked along the ward. It really was like a hotel. They passed rooms. Some of the doors were open. The furniture was soft, the lighting warm, people wandered about casually, including patients. There were even pictures on the wall.
“I see you don’t put people in straight-jackets here and… what not…?” Abernathy wondered.
“Goodness me no, not on this ward” said Papillon. “These patients are no danger, not if you treat them right, with respect and…” Papillon stopped. “I almost forgot…” She reached into a pocket and produced two odd, small, metallic objects. “Here” she said, offering them to the officers, “put these on.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Abernathy.
“I you want to talk to the patient…”
“I want to talk to the patient I’ll talk to the goddamn patient” said Abernathy. “Where is he?” Abernathy tried to storm off but Papillon said:
“Sir…” with a strange firmness that stopped him in his tracks, “you can talk to the patient all you like but if you don’t wear one of these” she said and held out the items in her hand, “he won’t talk to you.” They looked like badges made of iron. “Wear them” she added, “pretend they’re a medal, something you won for being brave.” She smiled an acidic smile the said “I know my patients and I know what I’m doing. Put these on.”
“Of course Ms Papillon” said Marsden in an emollient tone. He took a badge, fixed it to his jacket and looked at Abernathy.
“My apologies, ma’am” said the Major General. He did the same. “I don’t doubt your, uh… expertise in this… this field.” Once done Nurse Papillon pointed to a door:
“He’s just here” she said, “Room 34. He’s been awake for a few hours now.” She knocked. There was no answer but the door was not locked. Papillon pushed it open gently. “Go on” she nodded. The officers went inside. “Oh, um, one other thing” Nurse Papillon added. “If anything… unusual happens just press the alarm.” But before either officer could ask she was gone.
Inside was nothing surprising, nothing much at all, just a clean, sparse room, a bed, a table, a desk, a lamp, a small bookshelf half-full, a chair and a man sitting in the chair. The man was drawing something on a sketch pad that he held close to him. The two officers hovered for a moment, standing awkwardly. There was nowhere for them to sit.
“Son” Major General Abernathy began. The Man looked up from his drawing:
“You’re not my parents” he said and returned to his sketchbook.
“Then why’d you call me ‘son?’”
“You are Peter Stenson?” asked Lieutenant Marsden. The Man stopped drawing and looked into the middle distance, as if considering the question. He eventually said:
“Yes…” and went back to drawing. It wasn’t clear what picture he was making but Stenson was using a pencil and making long strokes.
“We’re from the military” said Abernathy. He waited for a response. Eventually Stenson said:
“Was I in the military?”
“In a sense” said Marsden. “We need…”
“You’re wearing badges” said Stenson. “Good…”
“We, uh, we need your help” said Marsden.
Stenson stopped drawing. He took a deep, shaky breath then said “why do people always need my help?” He said it as if to the heart of his sketch pad. There was a moment’s silent uncertainty.
“He’s shivering” said Abernathy. Stenson was indeed shaking.
“Snow is falling” said Stenson. He looked up at the ceiling with an expression of saddened awe. The two officers followed his gaze but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Stenson went back his drawing. “I must finish” he said. He started making hard, furious lines across the page. “I must finish…!”
“What is he drawing?” Abernathy asked.
“Shadows” said Stenson.
Marsden knelt beside Stenson in his chair. “Mr Stenson, you worked on the weapon, the Carter-Stenson device…”
“No, no, no…” Stenson drew big, slashing lines across the page, almost breaking the paper.
“I’ve had enough of this” said Abernathy.
“One second” said Marsden to the Major General, “if we can just…” he turned back to Stenson. “We need your help…”
“Why, why, why…?”
“We’re going to put it away” said Marsden. “For good, but we need…”
Stenson gasped and let go of the pad. It fell to the floor face up. “Where’s the alarm?” said Abernathy. The drawing on the page began to leak into the air. “Nurse, nurse…!” Abernathy yelled down the corridor. The drawing began to form, the pencil strokes wound around each other making a helix. Stenson crawled back up his chair.
“Tell us” said Marsden, pleading. “Tell us how to stop it.” The lines circled until they formed a kind of maw, with teeth and eyes.
“You can’t stop it” Stenson croaked. “It’s never going to stop.”
Six months on the great wall was complete, hundreds of miles of desert walled off by thick iron-nickel slabs, reality stabilisers. The design was recovered from PA/DSL archives but these were three times as thick the ones Stenson used back in the laboratory. The project cost billions of dollars and would cost billions more once the roof was put in place.
The Zone of Anomaly was now well known. People lived in fear and awe of it. Most terrifying was the bodies discovered in the heart of the zone, the images sent back as the rover crawled over grey, petrified mummies, the dead researchers, swathed in the ragged remnants of their former uniforms. The panicked public showered the President with gratitude for his decisive action containing the menace. Though his poll ratings were sky-high the President was rarely seen anymore. The President was sick.
Some days he’d grow extra digits, other days he’d have no torso or half a brain or only be able to speak Dog Latin or with a speech-pen, but he was the President, determined to go on, despite the hallucinations and personality slips. His condition was managed for a time by regular iron supplements enough so that he could participate in pre-recorded addresses and interviews. He insisted on being treated in the Whitehouse, that way he wouldn’t have to go to a hospital or speak to his Wife.
He was pleased when his Secretary told him that the wall was holding. The Zone of Anomaly had been contained. He indicated this while laid up in bed, using cards labelled ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ and ‘I am the President.’ He still felt bad though, for the volunteers, the staff, the soldiers, the builders who had been lost. That was another burden he would have to face on his decline into absolute improbability.
Then came the fateful day, the Surgeon General said: “The President is no more” They were old buddies, back from college, through the early campaigning. He had been attending to the President himself. The Surgeon General brought the news to the assembled cast of senior advisors, milling in the Cabinet Room.
“When did he die?” the Vice President asked.
“Oh, he didn’t die” said the Surgeon General. “He is no more.”
“What do you mean…?”
A door burst open in answer and a man strode into the room, late middle-aged, pasty, pudgy and supremely confident.
“Who are you…?”
“I’m the President of the United States” said the Man. He sat in the President’s chair, made himself comfortable, adjusted his hair and said, “Do I employ you?”
“I’m the Secretary of State for Transportation.”
“Not any more you’re not. You’re fired…!”
The Secretary of State for Transportation was aghast. “You can’t just… Guards, arrest this man!” But the security guards on the door knew better.
“I can and I have” said the President. “Demitri… Garry… get his ass outta here! The rest of you, sit!” Eventually everyone did as they were told. “I’ve been through some things lately… But I’m back and I wanna know what the first order of business is?” The President thumped the table.
“Well, Sir…” Carla-Ann said, gingerly putting the briefing down next to him. “There’s a city in Nevada…” The President nodded:
“I like Nevada. I have property there…”
“Like I say, there’s a city in Nevada, one of the smaller cities” Carla-Ann said.
The President pouted, “Oh…”
Carla-Ann continued, “Population of about four and a half thousand. It, uh… it’s gone missing…” The President drew a blank.
“Mr President” the Homeland Secretary chimed in, “the town is roughly three hundred miles north of the Zone of Anomaly.”
“But we contained that, right?” said the President.
“Sir” said Carla-Ann, “maybe if you have a glance at the briefing. It’ll, uh, show you…”
“Right now…? OK…” The President glanced through the document for maybe a minute or so, humming and nodding occasionally. When the Homeland Secretary thought it apt he said:
“Sir, we have a number of plans as to…”
“Plans to counter the danger that the anomaly poses to…”
“No, no, no, no…” the President interrupted, shaking his head. “Like I say I’ve been through some things, bigly!” he kept shaking his head. “I’m telling you now…” his tongue lolled. “We’re not getting involved in these hamlets if that means we will Stenson the other things…” He turned a pale grey. His fingers tapped the table, writhing like tentacles. His mouth pouted like a beak. “Get used to it, all the losers and the haters…” The walls started dissolving. “These are the new times… of freedom… iron-nickel, the end of the world as we know it… a new age… it’s gonna be so good…” The cabinet was left sitting round a table in the middle of the desert. “We have the freedom to be great again now” said the President. Black fronds were growing from his head. He was seven-foot tall. “Now… now… now we live in a world of alternative facts.”