"And what about you? How many people did you merge with over the last three days?" Les was eyeing him narrowly. Suspiciously.
"About seven. I was too busy staying alive for most of it to keep a solid count."
The Fed’s eyes narrowed further. Ron looked concerned as well.
Did they have cause to be? "Do you have any information about the effects of multiple merges? Or just guesses from old myths and two day’s experience?"
"Huh. I don’t think I really believe it. But a bunch of scientists claim to be working on it." Les shrugged uneasily. "Hopefully they find out it was all . . ." He looked back at the house. "Well, at least short term, nothing lingering."
"Like these zombies they spoke of? Heh." Hugh waved down the pickup crew and headed across the street to the next house.
They worked until well after dark, until the final house inside the overlapped area had been searched.
Ron and Les had expense accounts and hotel reservations. They dropped Hugh off at the fairgrounds and bolted for civilization.
No invite to dinner, or to hash it over. Feds. Figures.
All the exhibit halls were filled with refugees. The police had a corner for both coordinating and sleeping. Hugh walked over to the temporary cafeteria, and spotted Del. Delphi Hyde. Had he really only met her a month ago? She waved him over. "Any good news?"
"Your house is standing and Margarite Valaskovich and her daughter survived by drinking the water that leaked into their half basement."
Del brightened. "Excellent. Prissy's family is all accounted for, now. They're packing up to head for some relative's place in Reno."
Hugh eyed her. Her brown hair was streaked with lighter colors, a lot shaggier and longer than the short professional style of last week. She’d lost weight, or perhaps gained a bit more cheekbone, but she was still recognizable. Huge turned, looking around. Lots of people he recognized. Despite the changes. There was Prissy Mayhew, backpack in hand. She had seriously lightened hair. Instead of wavy brown like her sister, she now sported pale blonde hair streaked with various shades of brown and red. Extravagantly curly.
Interesting what multiple sheep merges produce. I wonder if she got any of the shape-shifting coyote genes that were swapping back and forth. The next few full moons will be just fascinating as people come face-to-face with what they have become, and probably will be from now on. The voice was unemotional, curious but distant.
Hugh grit his teeth. That was me speculating, not that damned wizard. I do not have pieces of a wizard stuck in my head! And I don't know anything about shape-shifting coyotes.
The sisters hugged. Eleven years difference in age, when their parents had been killed in a car crash, Pricilla Hyde had been young enough to be quickly adopted. Delphi Hyde had been sixteen, and stayed in foster homes until she joined the Navy on her eighteenth birthday.
"We're off. You be careful!" Prissy looked worried, but turned to help herd her six adopted and foster siblings off toward the parking lot.
Del looked more relieved than anything to see them go. "They’ve given out vouchers for stores, and the banks have hustled to get us updated statements and new ATM cards, so I'm good for buying new clothes, at least enough to get me by for a few days. Any idea when I can get home and check and see if my wardrobe is wearable or not?"
Hugh basked in something closer to normality than he could have conceived of two days ago. She’s talking to me. She's friendly. Then he winced. There hadn’t been time for rumors to spread. Del understood what had happened. About how when people merged, one was in control and the other a helpless witness to everything the other did with their shared body. He shied away from some of those memories. And wanted to repeat others . . . except that it hadn't been Del—or just Del, in any case—consenting to . . . He jerked his mind back to the subject at hand.
"Clothes . . . I have no idea what shape anything will be in. Umm, that Holstein bull and four cows were grazing on your front lawn, I opened the gate and they all trotted happily in. But I didn’t have time to check your fence."
Del winced. "I really need to get home. At least long enough to check the fences, and make sure the water is dripping in the trough before I take off for LA." She caught Hugh’s glance. "I've got a job interview. I don't know if I actually want to live down there, but if nothing else, it'll get me out from underfoot here for a week or so, hopefully until the emergency winds down."
Hugh nodded. He was a life long resident of the town, and had worked in her grandfather’s dairy while attending college. He knew all the news, the gossip of a generation. Alistair Hyde's younger daughter had given birth to an out-of-wedlock daughter, and ten years later married some computer expert in Los Angeles and had another daughter. Now Delphi and Prissy owned the old farm. "Bev has Missy. I’ll check on the bull periodically, and post something about the cows, make sure they have water, and toss hay over the fence. What else do you need?"
"Could you keep a bowl of dog food filled in case Fang comes back? I'll talk to Bev about Missy. Poor old horse."
If that’s what she is, anymore. Maybe I should observe all these animals more closely. Maybe they can serve as an example of how we’ve all changed. Hugh nodded. "Dog food. You got it."
Les peeled out of the orange coveralls and flopped onto the bed. And tried to not listen to his aching muscles. Wimp. Climbed a few fences, broke down a few doors. Listen to the TV. Now there’s some misery. He clicked the remote.
"In northern Greece, the workers are rioting, insisting they own the world. The Greek government, fully engaged with the rescue efforts following last Wednesday’s eruption of Mt. Milos is ignoring the riots. How this insanity can go on as fatality estimates from the continuing eruptions rise toward the million mark is hard to fathom, but with the strong winds out of the north, the volcanic ash is all blowing to the south and southwest, and hindering efforts all along the coast of the Mediterranean to rescue tsunami victims."
"Sometimes it’s enough to make you wonder if perhaps the world did actually end last week."
His cell chimed, and he rolled over to grab it, turning off the TV while he looked at the number. Unknown, but a DC area code.
"Agent Bishop? Sorry, but Regional Director Schulenburg has just gotten in and wants a debriefing tonight. In the conference room, as soon as you can get there."
"Right." Click. "Damn, I could have used a nice long soak. Then room service."
He grabbed his suit pants. Clean shirt. If in doubt, over-dress.
Les settled down beside the medical team. At least they’d brought in deli sandwiches. He popped the tab of his Dew and sighed as the sugar and caffeine hit his blood stream. "So. Any zombies?"
Dr. Tasman Lee eyed him. "You don’t sound as skeptical as you were yesterday." She was tall, with long slender graceful arms. Beautiful hands that captured his attention. Eyes that spoke of Asian ancestry, creamy cocoa skin. He’d known her all of eighteen hours and fifteen minutes, and had already decided he would like to stretch that out to a distance frightening to a confirmed bachelor. Unfortunately she seemed to be wedded to her job as an upper level researcher from the CDC.
Atlanta. I could learn to like Atlanta.
"No. I saw some strange stuff today. People don’t look good when they’ve merged with trees. Not the mention the exploded cat. The local cop we were with claimed one of the over lapped worlds had dinosaurs. From how far the poor cat had been stretched it was either that or an elephant."
"Eww!" The nurse beyond Tasman shivered. "We’ve found survivors of tree merges."
"For some value of survive." The doctor across the table rubbed his nose. "And one zombie. Revival, rather. We need to not mistake these people for movie monsters. She’s . . . semi-coherent. Speech is very slurred, motor control a bit shaky, but she understands and follows basic commands. Not much putrification yet, we’re pushing antioxidants and antibiotics."
Ron joined them. "We finished the search and rescue phase. Now what?"
"Now we wait. People who experienced major overlaps will be feeling the effects more and more over the next few weeks, possibly even months. But the zombies will be first."
"So, can we identify and track the people most at risk, so when they get sick we can grab them quickly?"
Heads shook around the table. Tasman explained. "We hadn’t realized how large an area experienced the strong overlap, how many people were affected. Somewhere in the vicinity of six thousand people experienced at least a single overlap before they left the area. Unfortunately most of them didn’t believe their senses, wrote it off as a dream, thought that they must have nodded off. And stayed home. Most of the people merged four times before they were safely out of the area. A lot of people hid in their homes, feeling safer there than outside. And close to a hundred escaped prisoners from the jail stayed and merged deliberately, over and over, hoping to gain magical abilities. Near the center of the effect, there may have been as many as twenty successive waves of touch. There may have been more than two worlds overlapping at a time."
"Magical abilities?" Les kept it to a mutter, and kept listening.
Jason Mata, an Inspector out of New Jersey, was second in command. "We haven’t got many coherent eye witness accounts, and as time goes on and the affected people think it over, their memories will get less and less accurate."
"What about the mega cities? Southern California? New York? Or for that matter, Mexico City? Or Tokyo or Bombay? Mumbai, rather." Ron had his little notepad on the conference table, scrolling through screens of information.
Jason Mata nodded. "The riots in LA took people away from the two hot spots. The other dozen hotspots down there, well, there were a lot of people, but they had no problem leaving. We expect the effects to be less in each person. In New York the strongest overlap was in a warehouse district, the local police controlled access very well. Mexico City . . . is fortunately not our problem. A lot of people came and went, a lot died. But only a few, who were running the sacrifices, were there for dozens of overlaps. Further overseas, we haven’t got any detailed information, yet."
"Dozens of overlaps. Umm, if someone kept just a couple percent . . . each time?" Ron looked boggled.
Mata nodded. "Exactly. We don’t know who these people are, any more. How much personality overlay could there be, if a quarter of their brain cells are from ten other people?"
Les bit his lip. "The cop we were working with seemed reasonably professional, for a traffic cop. And he was here the whole time. He admitted to seven merges. How much of him is still him? And how much is someone from one of those other places?"
"We’ll talk to the police tomorrow. One by one."
Les turned around to find his newly appointed boss behind him. Regis Schulenburg, usually working for the DEA. Les had met him twice, never worked with him.
"Because the town PD and close to three-fourths of the Sheriff’s deputies have multiple merges they have to be considered suspects. I’ve put a hold on their reordering of weapons and ammunition. We don’t want them armed."
"But . . ." Les trailed off as the Regional Director’s gaze chilled. Suspects? Of what crime? He swapped questions quickly. "How many weapons did they lose? Surely they all have personal weapons as well."
"As with the cars, the metal of guns will have merged with whatever was available. Sand with a bit of iron oxide in it and so forth. We’ll check and see how many live outside the overlapped areas, and thus may have working home weapons."
Les shut his mouth. Just because Barclay seems like an average, not-too-prejudiced small town speed trap operator doesn’t mean he hasn’t been screwed up by the multiple merges. He certainly believed in the merges. He could be acting. The effects could be delayed. Or he could be a good solid cop. I think I’ll assume there could be delayed effects, and keep my eyes open. Keeping him unarmed is a reasonable precaution.
But . . . I’m beginning to think I’ll need to keep my eyes on the Regional Director and so on. All the way up. Because tossing the rule of law is scarier than zombies. We don’t need a new underclass. Especially one that can be shot on sight or lynched.
Hugh unfolded the chaise lounge in the middle of the street. "Stop here. As best I recall we're about in the center of the village. If there's another overlap, if this will even work . . ." He looked sidelong at the withered figure as the Chief put her down carefully. Caroline Vincent had been hospitalized for nearly three years, in a persistent vegetative state. She had never recovered from the head injuries she'd received in a car accident. Hugh had exhausted all his arguments about what the consequences would be for a person on the other world who merged with her. As the Chief had pointed out, it hadn't been fifty-fifty. Probably ten percent at most. Probably less. It had been enough to put the Chief's hand back together, but not heal it. Multiple merges had managed that . . . sort of. Would a single merge be enough to put his wife on the track to healing? They were both carrying poles, to shove people around without touching them, themselves. Sandy drove the squad car away. They weren't leaving any more equipment in the area for longer than necessary. The theory being that the people could move away from danger, but the department's one working car couldn't.
The street was empty. The safe buildings had been checked. Twenty-eight fatalities, so far. Hugh leaned and pet the two Labrador police dogs. Ollie and Hans had merged multiple times with all sorts of other animals, but were still recognizably themselves.
Entrance into town was strictly controlled. If the overlap was roughly symmetrical, there should be an overlap today or tomorrow, one in a few days, and one last one in a few months. The Chief had graphed them out. It had been pretty unconvincing, but the desperate hope in the Chief's eyes . . . Harry looked at the Chief’s right hand.
"Those merges, they weren’t all bad. My hand was ruined. The first merge put it back together, a couple more and I could even use it."
Hugh leaned and looked at it, wrapped up in gauze. "What did the doctor say?"
" ‘Keep it clean and dry and DAMN! Another code!’ He ran out, and after awhile a nurse came by and wrapped it up. I figure I’ll go back in a few days, when they get the worst taken care of." He squirmed defensively. "This isn’t like Cathy. I swear, Cathy was dead . . . but merges brought her back to life."
"At least for now." Hugh looked around the peaceful scene. The storm had blown over, and the sun shone on the rain washed lawns and clean sidewalks. If it weren't for the burned strip center the street would look almost normal. But once you started looking, the crimped rooflines here and there, the shattered boards, broken windows and crumpling bricks became more obvious. There were no undamaged buildings, but a survey of how many were safe would have to wait until the overlaps had stopped. "How long do you suppose we should wait before we let people back in to check their homes, and how long before it's safe to let people live here?"
"We won't be able to justify keeping people away for a month. That's how far ahead of the worst of it those sheep at the party happened." The Chief got up and paced. "And those were just the ones we noticed. People may be telling us about weird stuff that happened earlier, once everything settles down. It ramped up so fast, we may be past the stage where they happen daily." He shot an unhappy glance at his wife and paced again. Massaged his hand.
It looked like the bandage needed to be changed again.
"Well, I’m going to walk Ollie and Hans around and let them sniff into the collapsed office buildings – carefully – and see if there are any people trapped. Outsiders we weren't looking for."
Hugh's stomach flopped, and people appeared around them, a woman shrieked and ran from him, bumped the chaise lounge and was sucked into the pitiful shape there, thrashing and calling out in Russian. A man rushed up, staff in hand. Hugh ducked, the staff spun around the other way and hit his ribs, he tried to ride the strike away, the man grabbed at him. Ollie and Hans lunged, Hugh jerked away and looked around. Empty clean street. The three story office building at Miner and Washington slowly leaned over and collapsed into the street. Caroline Vincent flinched at the crash; dust billowed, and he and Chief grabbed the sides of the chaise lounge and carried it back toward the PD.
"She reacted. Did you see?"
"I did. Now we'll find out if she'll heal the rest of the way." Hugh radioed in to the joint Police and Sheriff's headquarters at the fair grounds, to report 'a small aftershock' and the collapse of the building.
Then he walked around town, poking carefully into the ruined buildings. Ollie and Hans obligingly sniffed the air, but evinced no interest in any of them. They growled at cats, and a bold coyote, out in broad daylight. When they ran out of buildings to check, they stayed outside and enjoyed the beautiful day for three more hours. Sandy returned and they loaded Caroline back into the squad car and drove her back to the long term care facility in Sacramento. The nurses there were torn between sympathy for the Chief, and irritation at the inconvenience his little outing had caused them. But they agreed with him that Caroline's color looked better, and carried her away.
As a devote Catholic, Mary Elizabeth Wooten figured she knew a Heavenly Battle between Good and Evil when she saw one. And if the happenings of the last three days hadn’t been a battle between Good and Evil, then Mary, mother of Jesus, was an Atheist.
Mary Elizabeth had merged with a determined and protective spirit, who’d held her up and given her the strength to get out of the grocery store and into the Convent, and then latter, up to the school and then the fairgrounds. She leaned and patted her two little Pekinese. As a dog lover it hadn’t surprised her at all that a protective spirit would take the form of a sheepherding dog. And taken Mary Elizabeth into the shape of the shepherd as well. If it hadn’t been so horrible for other people, and so important, she might have said that it had been fun. She’d almost been disappointed when she’d turned back into a human once she was far enough away to be safe.
She’d spent two nights at the refugee center at the fairgrounds, and in the morning walked home, taking the trails along the river. As she’d hoped, she’d found half of her family out playing with the squirrels. She probably shouldn’t have come the rest of the way home, but the shelters weren’t allowing pets. And really, the house looked fine, the strange broken trees and so forth stopped a block away. Mostly. Here, everything was fine.
"I had no idea how fun being a dog was." She picked up Mitzy and exchanged sniffs with her. "And I could run so fast, and stay away from those violent men. You two should have stayed home!"
Boris barked for equal attention, so she scooped him up and took them both out to the living room with her. "Now. All we need is for Daddy to come home and everything will be just fine."
She dusted and swept, and surveyed the contents of the refrigerator. It had all gone nasty, not surprising since the power had been out for days. She topped off the dog food bowls, tossed a bite of kibble into her mouth and crunched away while she found a garbage bag without holes and started dumping everything in the fridge.
She turned on the TV for background noise. One animal news item caught her attention.
"Is it Graffiti or cover for a more serious crime? There was confusion at the Johannesburg racetrack when a practical joker bleached faint striping on all the horses stabled at the track. Ownership and identification issues have arisen as several hundred million kroners worth of racehorses were not in their assigned stalls.
Horse owner Owen De Wald derided the joke theory. "Someone with a sick sense of humor? More likely the start of the stable workers demanding higher pay."
Race track officials admitted that "Stallions, geldings and mares were running around loose. Fortunately injuries were minor, even though the stallions did fight with each other."
"Our main concern is that this was cover for a few very valuable animals to be stolen. We are working to clearly identify all the horses. In some cases we have DNA tests under way."
She giggled at the sight of the long-legged elegant horses, with stripes on their glossy hindquarters.
That night they all snuggled down in bed together. The mattress was a bit odd and crunchy, but it smelled like clean dry grass. In the morning she had more kibble. Really she should have realized years ago that it was well balanced, low fat and contained loads of vitamins and minerals.
It was near noon when the horrible smell hit. She sniffed her way to the front door. And lit up. "Lenny!" but there was something horribly wrong with her husband. Her sensitive dog nose warned her. Bless the Protector!
Lenny just stood there, looking confused. His clothes were ripped, one foot bare. A nasty deep cut across his tummy. He tipped his head, and she recoiled as a spurt of pus shot out of a ragged hole low on his throat. "Buh, buh . . ."
"Don’t try to talk Dear, I can see your throat is hurt." She froze suddenly. "Lenny, if anyone sees you like this, they’ll think you’re a monster. A zombie. They’ll kill you!" She thought quickly. "Come around through the gate, the pool water has lots of chlorine in it. We can fight this."
She took Lenny’s hand and he shambled after her. Lenny had a garage full of boy toys. A generator, an air compressor. She drew in a sudden breath. "The power washer. It will be perfect."
Mitzi and Boris whined and worried while she got everything ready. Fired up the generator. Plugged in the power washer. The water knocked Lenny off his feet and rolled him up against the patio steps. Jammed there, she was able to really get into that nasty hole. Although for a minute there she feared she might have drowned him. Then she got the deep cut on his tummy good and clean. She washed the rest of him as well, dragging him out and rolling him over to wash all the nasty skin lesions absolutely clean. Then she got towels, a bit rough, she probably needed to try a different brand of softener, and some clothes. Then she got him up and put into bed in the guest room. He still smelled a bit off.
Both dogs rolled on Lenny’s old rags. So she bathed them too. Nothing like a nice clean house, and her family around her.