Saturday, 22 December 2020
"Looks like we survived the End of the World." Hugh Barclay eased carefully down to sit on the curb beside his fellow police officers. He felt like a single big bruise. All his joints were stiff, swollen. His muscles were beyond sore and almost quivering with exhaustion. He needed a lot more rest, after the last two days of chaos. Eight hours on hard ground wasn't working.
Harold Vincent, the town’s Chief of Police, looked over his shoulder in the direction of town. "If it is really over. There were those odd . . . experiences ramping up to the last two days. If it’s symmetrical, there will be a few more as it tapers off."
Barney moaned. "Can we get some sleep before we have to start the house-by-house search?"
Their daylight visit had found only three people. Sandy was taking two of them to an evacuation center. The third was one of theirs. Hugh leaned forward and looked at a police woman, sitting silently between two of her fellows. "How are you feeling, Cathy?"
She reached out and swiveled her arms, eying her hands as the fingers closed and opened. She growled, voice coarse and broken. "Empty. Hungry." Her clothes were tattered and bloody.
A faint breeze sprang up and everyone downwind leaned away.
She smelled like a two day old corpse.
Sunday, 23 December 2020
Washington, D C.
"Well, since it’s all being called mass hysteria, I really hate to admit I felt anything yesterday." Les Bishop eyed his interviewer warily. He didn’t like weird stuff, and being questioned about it, when he hadn’t reported anything . . .
"Agent Bishop." The interviewer was a big fat white woman. Professionally dressed, but still letting down the side. "I didn’t ask you what you wanted to admit. I asked you what you felt."
Les Bishop scowled. He’d worked his ass off, proving over and over that he was as good as a white man, that he hadn’t needed affirmative anything, nor quotas. This weirdness was throwing him off, badly. Is it good or bad, that I felt it? He reluctantly decided that strict truthfulness was the best tactic, in the face of the unknown. "I don’t know what it was, it was like a horror film, a feeling like something, someone was creeping up behind me, about to grab me. It was much stronger than a mere . . . case of the creeps. It was really strange, like I could almost hear someone cursing about it, except they were speaking Spanish. Or with odd accents or . . . it was like there were a whole bunch of ghosts all trying to snatch my body." Les shut his mouth abruptly, shut off the babble.
The woman nodded. "Right, so you want to flip a coin and determine which hot spot you get to go to?"
"Hot spot? You mean, trouble spots?" Or for you desk jockeys does it mean hospital or psychiatrist?
"Field work. Possibly dangerous. This was a widespread phenomenon, and very strong and worrisome in some areas. Hot spots."
Les blinked, taken aback. "Shouldn’t my experience have disqualified me?"
"No. The areas near the hot spots experienced a much stronger effect. Apparently this is going to cause all sorts of problems in those areas. The Director said to send people who had at least some certainty that what happened to the people there was real."
"Stronger?" That must have been Hell.
And the woman really did pull out a coin and flip it. "Heads, California, tails, New Orleans. Looks like you get California. Here is the briefing, the plane tickets will be ready by the time you finish packing. Merry Christmas." Her smile was wry, a mixture of wistfulness and relief.
Les thanked her, took the report and returned to his office to add traveling work supplies to the luggage he’d been warned to pack. Nothing going on except a worldwide panic over a nightmare sensation off and on for a few days. His boss stuck his head in to wish him a merry Christmas and tell him to stay out of trouble in California.
"Whatever is going on is big. They’re grabbing agents from every agency and sending them to ghod-knows-where." The man looked worried.
Then the division secretary brought in his e-ticket page.
"The airlines are running late due to the complete checks the president ordered, for every single plane." She rolled her eyes. "I can’t believe they’ve hauled so many people in on a Sunday, and two days before Christmas. No telling when you’ll get back."
Les took the elevators down, straightening his tie, checking his suit in the mirrored wall. Not quite up to MIB standards, but I’m better looking than Smith. Tall, thin-but-athletic, black. He noted the people who were coming and going from the lobby on this Sunday morning, a lot of them with luggage in tow. Called in to be sent off? He caught a taxi to the airport. The plane was late. He sat and looked up at a TV screen, scrolled words running underneath.
Rescue effort are flagging in the face of the sheer magnitude of the devastation caused by the series of earthquakes that began in early June and show no signs of stopping. The government of Iran continues to focus on efforts in the major cities, where the majority of the earthquake victims are located. These heartbreaking aerial photographs from Northern Iran have helped to initiate airdrops of food, water and medical supplies to the isolated communities. Until the roads have been cleared and bridges rebuilt, there simply is no other way to get help to the people in rural areas.
Les looked at the jerky helicopter shots of fallen bridges over dry canyons, collapsed mud brick buildings and shook his head. What did I do to get sent into earthquake country? At least California has strict building regulations. It won’t have fallen down. Much.
He dug out the reports he’d been given and started reading the one marked "General Background-Read First. California Edition."
It started with a recap of the explanations he’d read in the papers, seen on TV. Publicly, the Government was calling it mass hysteria over the Mayan Calendar 'running out'. Certainly, here in the US, there'd been some silly "End of the World" parties. Every year since 2000 fizzled. Are people crazy? This year, those parties were getting the media coverage. According to the report, the truly odd happenings were being swept into the same pile and passed off as amusing local color stories. Earthquakes, fires possibly in drug labs, denial that any city water supplies had been poisoned with hallucinogenic drugs, and it was all explained away. Rioting in Haight-Ashbury, and Southern California's poorest areas hardly needed explanation. The hippy revival love fest in Yosemite got lots of attention, but most of the hot spots were much deeper in the wilds, and only the animals or very small numbers of people were involved.
The disruption was international. Hysteria got most of the blame overseas as well, with drugs, alcohol and small numbers of deliberate trouble makers seen as the sparks that ignited the worst of the excesses. Especially in Mexico. Eighteen live sacrifices at Chitzen-itza. Multiple bloody suicides in Mexico City.
Les looked back at the TV, but it had gone on to sports. He stared back at the report.
A report that claimed that the worst of the rumors were true. And they knew why it happened. Multiple parallel worlds briefly interacting, then separating, leaving chaos in their wake. In the hot spots, it apparently happened briefly, every few decades. The known hot spots were kept under observation, and empty of people. The Department of Homeland Security had a small division, now overwhelmed, that had handled the few problems discretely. This major overlap had involved hot spots they’d not been aware of. Many in cities and towns with thousands of people "exposed." At the height of the overlap, the entire world had been weakly affected.
He shivered, flashing back to those strange hours. He’d felt ill, toughed it out most of the day, left the office a bit early, Friday afternoon. Felt strange all the way home. And once there, he’d turned around and left his tenth floor apartment, driven by some odd hunger that was partially satisfied down on the streets. Voices whispering in his head, twitches of movement he hadn’t initiated, as those voices tried to take him, use him. Everyone else out on those crowded streets had been acting odd. Quiet, frightened, milling about.
And then it went away. Everyone had looked around and wondered what they were doing, how they’d come to be where they were. Some panicked, some ran. And then it started all over again. It had cycled for several hours. Traffic jams, hospitals packed. Street crime had actually been low, but domestic violence had edged a bit higher.
And now I don’t know whether to be relieved that I wasn’t crazy, or wish it was just inside my head, and not the World going crazy. His logical mind couldn’t stop thinking of the ramifications. Touched by parallel worlds, with some effects lingering. What sort of effects? Lingering for how long? Will these strongly affected areas really be that bad?
Les turned his attention back to the specifics in the report.
He was bound for a small town named Reilly Creek which had been near an unknown hot spot. With a river on one side and hilly terrain limiting access to the west, the main roads out of town had led north or south. To the south, the collapse of the County Jail and escape of prisoners had prevented much movement south. One of the main roads running north had been intermittently blocked by a building on one of the other worlds. Leaving only the other northern road and four minor roads to the west for evacuations. Which meant that a whole lot of people hadn’t left town expeditiously, or in many cases, at all. Fatalities were in the mid-double digits, injuries rife, but mostly minor. Damage to buildings, extreme.
They’d had a series of earthquakes, the strongest one a 5.3. To the outside world, that would be enough to explain the damaged buildings, the evacuations would sound sensible, until the structural integrity of the buildings, water supply system and the sewers had been checked.
And now a pack of Federal Agents were about to descend on them, to investigate something all us Feds don’t believe in. This is going to be interesting.
He looked up as someone sat down beside him. "Ron! Good grief, they’re pulling in the family men, two days before Christmas?" /// change according to Allignment///
Ron was in many ways his opposite. Short, pale even for a Caucasian, with a relaxed air. Competent. "Yep, and they told us there wasn’t a hope in hell of wrapping this up in less than a couple of weeks."
"Have you read the report?"
"Yeah. I got pulled into an organizational meeting yesterday. Even with a night to sleep on it, it isn’t any more believable."
"Huh. I think I wish they’d continued to leave me out of it. I’ve been reading this report. It’s like bad science fiction."
Ron nodded. "Yeah. It is really strange. And I heard a bunch of high powered scientists arguing about it. Especially about these hot spots."
Les fanned the report. " ‘For a couple of miles around the hot spots the overlap was strong enough for physical effects. Buildings were damaged where they tried to coincide.’ What the hell does that mean?"
"You think that’s bad? Wait till you get to the next section. It says the people physically merged with people from the other worlds. And when the worlds peeled away, the split wasn’t always clean. Sometimes they kept bits of the other person. Up to a few percent of cells swapped."
Les stared in horror. Shook himself. "No, that’s going too far. That I don’t believe."
"They argued about whether this was why there were periodic world-wide extinctions, followed by bursts of evolution."
"Evo . . . wait. Are you talking about new species, new kinds of animals? As if . . . those bits of other people . . . some of them were, umm, reproductive?"
Ron started to speak, then frowned and nodded at a group of people settling in a corner. "Those are the medical types they brought up from the CDC, yesterday. DNA changes are one of the things they'll be studying. Looks like they’re headed to Reilly Creek with us."
Les’s eyes were drawn to an elegant woman with soft cocoa skin and exotic eyes. "I certainly hope so."
Ron snorted. "And once again you are completely derailed from a mere national, no, world-wide, crisis by the call of the hormones. Doctor Lee has a reputation as an ice princess, so don’t get your hopes up, Don Juan."
"My thoughts are pure."
Ron snorted again.
"Okay. Pure lust."
Half an hour later, he was seated beside her on the packed flight.
"Dr. Lee? Agent Les Bishop. And I think you met Ron yesterday?"
The doctor leaned around him to nod at Ron. "Yes, at the first briefing, although we didn’t speak."
Les waved the report. "Can you clarify any of this? I don’t understand about this ‘merging’ even after I forced myself to accept the idea of . . . parallel worlds."
"I’m not a physicist, but what I grasp of the theory is that everything, every atom, every subatomic particle, every quark, so to speak, is actually a dozen or so quarks, all separated by dimensions we can’t see or feel, but have recently been able to detect and detect what is on the other side. All those other quarks are the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that have been postulated to comprise some 95% or more of the Universe, interacting with ours only through gravity. In a merge between universes, the matching quarks apparently jump around to match up geographically with their other parts in the other dimension. Or maybe the actual quarks don’t jump, but their entanglement jumps to another that is near their position. To say the physicists don’t know is apparently a vast understatement."
Ron sniggered. "The talks yesterday were certainly all over the map. I liked the fellow who talked about a multi-universal quark soup – with the quarks from different universes matching up with their own kind, not individual quarks seeking specific individual quarks. Atomic particles that matched in quark makeup attracted more strongly than misaligned ones, and molecules even more strongly and larger chemical constructs more strongly and on and on."
"Multi-universal quark soup?" Les felt an incipient head ache coming on.
"Indeed. At a practical level, everything, everything, was pulled into an alignment with something from the other overlapping world. The closer the gross chemical makeup, the stronger the pull. The overlap slides into place over about an hour. First the larger structures, working down the chain of sizes. First whole animals, right down to the organs, in seconds. Cells within minutes, then it slows down as the intra-cellular structures try to match. That’s when DNA starts getting messed up, spontaneously swapping around. After an hour, even the quarks are matching up. But before that first touch, there can be a lot of movement and the people could, for instance, avoid touching dissimilar people, and deliberately attempt to merge with someone their own gender and age. But resist too long and you get sucked into a merge, like it or not, and no matter how bad the fit. Mind you, I haven’t seen any of this. But human-animal merges and even human-tree merges apparently happened. In the hot spots."
Les boggled. "That’s . . . unbelievable. I think someone dropped a few brain cells, day before yesterday."
The pretty doctor glowered. "I’m just repeating what I heard. Apparently this has happened before, and is the basis of much human mythology. Like you, I’m a skeptic, but I respect too many of the people telling me these things to completely dismiss them. So I’ll keep an open mind until I have the opportunity to see it all myself." She nodded sharply.
Guess I’ve been told. Les settled back into the narrow seat and hoped for a quick flight, and some common sense at the far end of it. He eyed the report with disfavor, but started reading again.
Tasman Lee shut the ignorant Black man out of her thoughts. And then tried to stop that prejudicial thought. But her grandmother’s admonitions kept running through her head.
"And keep your eyes open for some smart Asian or White gentleman. You need to marry, you are getting old! And stay away from those Black men. They aren’t reliable, they aren’t smart. They are oversexed."
She was speaking from experience. Grandmother was Vietnamese by birth, Chinese by ethnicity, and had gained her experience with men very early in life, generally for profit and with many emotional disappointments. One man, black, of course, had stuck around long enough to marry her, get her into the United States, tie her down with a baby, then die. Grandmother had always lived under that scathing assessment of her life. And taken it out on Tasman's mother. Vera took after her father. Vera was a burden who had impeded her mother’s education. At least Vera had married sensibly. A nice White man, with a business.
Her mother had shielded Tasman from as much of that criticism as possible.
Be honest. It was verbal abuse. Mother’s been happy since I removed Grandmother, lured her away to pick at me while keeping house for the very busy oh-so-important doctor. I knew what I was getting into, when I invited her to move to Atlanta, to live with me. I just didn’t realize how deeply it would affect me.
So here I am, with a handsome and probably intelligent man sitting beside me. I should talk to him. I’ll be working with him for weeks.
"So, should I infer from the suit that you are FBI?" Well, that was stiff enough.
"Yes, we both are. The Department of Homeland Security is drafting people in from every branch they’ve got to deal with this."
Up against the window, the other Agent, Ron Scalzoni (White, with wedding ring), spoke up. "I heard they were pulling in four thousand people. I guess from the report the hotspots are getting special treatment. But you’d think California had enough staff of their own."
The black man, Bishop, shook his head. "D.C. is overblessed with staff in every single agency. California’s got almost enough people to handle the city problems, by pulling in a whole lot of the CHP’s people. We’re being sent to a small town. The local cops are probably just speed trap operators, so we're going to be short on support."
Tasman sighed. Speed trap operators. At least he didn’t say White, or Honky or whatever the current term-of-disparagement is. But we all know Blacks can’t be racist, so I guess this is just a bad attitude on my part. "The CDC has leased a floor of a local hospital, for our special cases. Apparently the hospital over-built with an eye to the future, so we aren’t displacing anyone. Our patient load will determine whether we bring in the locals or not. Dr. Zealand insisted on bring his complete staff, right down to the orderlies." She leaned back as a stew . . .cabin attendant brought lunch trays.
Bishop poked dubiously at the meal, unsealed it and examined his sandwich. "Dry cheap white bread, turkey. Slice of tomato. Packet of mayo, packet of mustard. Someone hates me."
Scalzoni snorted. "The airlines love everyone, and try to not offend anyone. Better to just eat it and be done."
"I'll bet the bread is gluten free."
The attendant was back for drink orders. Two cokes and a Mountain Dew. No wonder the man was uptight.
"Dr. Zealand’s in charge of the medical treatment, right?" Scalzoni asked from the far side.
"Yes. He’s very good, I’ve worked with him before."
Bishop bristled a bit, as if jealous.
Oh, spare me. I’m going to be busy enough, working, without some idiot trying to stake a claim and treat me like property. "My specialty had always been research, with much less hands-on medicine." Enough! She finished the characterless dinner, pulled out her blackberry and read the rest of the flight. Trying hard to ignore the warm shoulder that touched hers so frequently.
Reilly Creek, California
Sunday 23 December, 2020
"You need to get to that meeting, Chief. Those Feds will be arriving any time, ready and willing to take over the whole show." Hugh hated to prod the man, but . . .
Harry nodded. "Yeah. They rented space in the mall, for this first meeting. So everyone will fit. I’d as soon not go, but . . ."
Hugh decorated that thought for him. "The mayor will be there, and he doesn’t understand, he was away at his brother’s. Thinks his wife is mental. And the half of the City Council that was in town during the Overlap are in the hospital or ran away to hide under some relative’s bed. Not to mention the CHP, who never ventured all the way into the town. The Sheriff is going to need your backup."
"All right. Enough. And you’re coming too; you have a better grasp on what happened that anyone else. Let’s go."