This novel will be coming out in May of this year. Eric
Eric Flint and Marilyn Kosmatka
“Sorry about the rotation list, Andy.” Lieutenant Joseph Schuler shrugged and shot the captain a look halfway between pity and resignation. “We’re just too short of people to staff any shift the way we should. As for midnights… You know how it is.”
Captain Andrew Blacklock knew how it was. The same way it had been since the day he started working at the state of Illinois’ maximum-security prison just across the road from the Mississippi River. But tonight’s numbers were worse than usual. The coverage was nowhere nearly adequate. He looked at the men and women ready to punch out and squelched the thought of asking them to work over. They had worked short. They were beat. He knew over half of them had worked a double shift. Probably the third one this week, the sixth this pay-period.
Andy forced a wry grin. Some things never change. Pay everyone overtime, but keep the other costs low. Don’t hire anyone new. The state can’t afford the bennies. Health, dental, vision. Nope, overtime’s cheaper.
“We’ll make it, Joe,” he said. “We always do.” Andy looked away from the man he was relieving and toward the metal detectors. Three guards were lined up in front of the machines at the prison entrance waiting to process the oncoming shift. Andy wasn’t worried. Just irritated.
He hated taking shortcuts, and that’s exactly what had to be done when working a skeleton crew. One set of rounds for every two that should be done. Everyone locked down come morning. Day-shift was going to start out behind, and he knew they could no more afford it than he could afford to send the prisoners to the cafeteria for breakfast. Or to the infirmary for their meds. He stifled a curse. The nurses were always ticked when they had to hand-deliver the morning meds to the cellblocks. They were even more short-staffed than he was.
There was no department within the prison system with enough people. Not even at the top end, the administrative level. It was lean times for the state and cuts had been made. More cuts than could be safely tolerated. The prisons of today were different from those of the past. Prisoners could not be locked down for months at a time. They had to be given exercise periods. They were allowed to talk. Imprisonment was no longer forced labor coupled with solitude. And more had changed than just the rules.
The prisoners of today were as different as the rules that regulated their incarceration. At least at this particular prison. X-house—death row—was filled to capacity. Two thirds of the men awaiting execution were drug addicts who had fried their brains before exiting their teens. Schizophrenia was rampant; delusions of grandeur were almost the norm. And remorse was something few actually felt. Most could find an excuse for what they did. Those who couldn’t, didn’t seem to care.
The last man to be given a hot shot—the series of three lethal injections deemed acceptable to the state—was one of those men without a conscience. He had raped, mutilated, and killed little girls. Grade-schoolers, the oldest of whom was nine.
Without a struggle, he had walked out of the small room where he had spent his last day on earth. Meekly, he had laid on the gurney and allowed the guards to strap him down and roll him to the viewing area. He was sad-eyed, gentle talking, sincere. Claiming to be a born-again Christian. Even at the last minute he was working the system, hoping for a stay of execution. It hadn’t come. An I.V. had been inserted, and a saline solution began its journey from the dangling plastic bag to his vein. Then from behind a wall—so none of the witnesses could see who administered the deadly doses—an anesthetic, sodium thiopental, was injected into the tubing by a physician. This was followed by an equally lethal dose of pancuronium bromide, a chemical that paralyzed the diaphragm and lungs. Then came the potassium chloride. It didn’t take long for this newest addition to his bloodstream to interrupt the electrical signaling of his heart and cause cardiac arrest. The only tears shed that day had been those of the girls’ parents. The monster’s mother had been dry-eyed. His father had not come to say good-bye.
Andy suppressed a shudder.
Lieutenant Schuler frowned. “Next week, and the week after, are going to be rough. The staffing situation is going to get worse before it gets any better. Keith Woeltje is going out on medical. He has to have knee surgery. And Kathleen Hanrahan will be starting her maternity leave.”
Andy rolled his eyes, since Joe wasn’t looking at him. Schuler was a good manager, but he was close to burning out. He needed to take a little time off. Not that that would happen any time soon, even though the man had the time coming. He hadn’t taken a sick day or personal day in years. He hadn’t taken a vacation for the last two. They were too short handed.
Joe was flipping through the stack of papers he carried. He was new to the afternoon shift and was still trying to get a handle on his crew and the new routine. He was also trying to come to grips with a divorce and his children living two hours away. Andy knew all the gossip. Maria Schuler had gotten tired of the long hours her man put in and found herself one that would be home every night by five-thirty. The fact that the guy made two dollars for every one Joe earned hadn’t hurt the situation any.
Marriages didn’t usually fare well for those who worked the prison.
Andy’s own marriage had gone by the wayside three years back. For different reasons, but the end result was the same. His wife had been the personnel director of a good-sized manufacturing firm. The company grew. The promotions and raises came. And she found it harder and harder to introduce her husband to the people she worked with. His job at the prison, fine the day they married, was no longer something she wanted. She reminded him daily of his lack of ambition, of his dead end situation. When the split finally came, he had been relieved. And grateful. Connie hadn’t wanted children. Not yet. She felt twenty-eight was too young to be saddled with kids. Deep down, he suspected she would never want any. Kids were too messy, too noisy, and too expensive for her to enjoy.
Andy gave the man next to him a long look. Schuler was a big boy, over six-four, and weighing in at a little over two hundred fifty pounds. All bone and muscle. A member of the E-team, he was on the fast track to making captain.
“Relax, Joe,” he said. “Just go home. There’s nothing you can do about it. We’ll be okay. We always are.”
Schuler nodded. “Sometimes, I think that’s the problem. We always manage.”
He handed Andy the papers he had been going over and took off the radio hanging on his belt. He passed it to his relief with a shrug. “You’ll need this before the night’s out. There’s only about a dozen of them working anywhere close to right. Man, what a mess. Makes me want to play the lottery.”
Andy laughed. “Sure. And after you won, what would you do with all that time on your hands? You would miss us. Besides, men like you and me, we’re not here for the money. Don’t you watch the talk shows? It’s the uniform. The ego trip. Get home and catch some shut-eye.”
Joe’s forehead lost a few of its creases but not all of them.
Always worried. Andy clapped the man on the back. “Joe, don’t take this place home with you. If you do, you won’t make fifty. Do what you can, then leave it here.” He smiled, but this time it didn’t touch his eyes. He was thinking of another officer who, the year before, died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight. The man hadn’t left anyone behind because he gave everything he had to the job. There was nothing left for him to build a life with outside the walls. “Stop off for a beer on your way home. One won’t do you any harm, and it could do a lot of good.”
Joe shook his head. He didn’t drink, except very occasionally. Didn’t gamble. Didn’t smoke. He ate right. Tried to get at least six hours sleep out of every twenty-four, and when he could he got in eight. He was one of the new breed of guards who took their physical health seriously. It was men like him that changed the title of “Prison Guard” to that of “C.O., Correctional Officer.” They took their health seriously, and they took their jobs seriously. Sometimes, too much so.
Schuler was checking out the state employees lining up to enter the prison. Andy knew he was counting them. One assistant superintendent, three zone lieutenants, seven zone sergeants, twenty-nine guards and two nurses: that was who he would be running the prison with. A thirty percent shortage of bodies. They weren’t all here yet. Most of them would show up in the last five minutes.
Andy watched Joe watching the midnight shift arrive. Good man, but he’s going to worry himself into an early grave.
He glanced around the twenty-five by forty-five foot entry area and saw Lieutenant Rodney Hulbert, the afternoon shift’s second in command.
Rod seemed as small as Joe did large. Just a hair over five-six and with no extra meat on him anywhere, he looked like a strong breeze could blow him away. Andy knew the appearance of frailty was about as far from the truth as you could get. The man was a survival hobbyist and hard as nails. He was also the best marksman the prison had, by the proverbial country mile. Every year for the past three, he’d been a serious competitor in the National Rifle Matches held at Camp Perry.
“No full moon, but the crazies are wired tonight,” Rod said, when he came up. He stuck his hand out and shook Andy’s. “I’ll be glad to go home.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Yeah. Two attempted suicides, a half dozen shoving matches, and I don’t know how many solitary temper tantrums. It’s been hell. We’ve had to use the extraction team three times and the first responders were called out on two medicals.”
Andy shot Joe a quizzical look and the man shrugged. “I was waiting till the charge nurse called in. It seems quite a few inmates have refused their meds. With most of them it doesn’t amount to much. But some of them, well… the psych meds…” He glanced back toward the bars separating the entrance area from the prison. “Even some of the diabetics and epileptics turned down tonight’s med pass.”
And he was working short! Andy would swear he could feel his blood pressure climbing, even though he knew that was impossible. Not the climbing—he was damn sure that was happening—but being able to feel it.
“Hey, I told you it was going to be a bad night. But who knows, maybe they’ll settle down. It’s been crazy for over five hours.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Andy thought for a moment. “Any chance of getting one of the afternoon nurses to stay over? Or maybe a day nurse to come in early?”
Joe shook his head. “Can’t. We worked with only two, and they were both held over from days. I’ve already told Sterling she has to be here by four in the morning. She said she would. She’ll even try to get here a little earlier to help with the set up for the first med pass.”
Rod nodded his head in agreement. “They’re even shorter than we are. You have to remember, the state doesn’t pay squat compared to the public sector. We’re lucky we’ve got any nurses.”
Andy almost grit his teeth. He remembered the last meeting. The nurses and the guards were paid the same. The one took a minimum of two years education plus state licensing; the other was anyone with a GED and up. The workload was the same. The danger was the same. The guards were to be nice to the nurses. The state couldn’t afford to lose any more.
“Okay, let’s get report over with. I have a lot to do.” He led them to one of the three six-foot conference tables situated close to the glass double doors separating the entry area and the prison grounds. The wind was blowing in from the northwest, causing the doors to rattle with each new gust. He knew that at forty-three degrees—the temperature the bank’s sign flashed as he drove past it a half hour earlier—the wind would feel below freezing. Stacks of insurance forms and in-service announcements lying on the counter that ran the length of the east wall fluttered each time the door opened and a guard entered. Andy hoped like hell the nurses showed.
“Who are my nurses?” he asked, suddenly very worried.
Joe laughed. “Man, listen, I can’t do this to you. I’ll stay over.” He looked at Rod.
“I can’t stay. I’ve hit the maximum hours allowed.”
“Who’re the nurses?”
“Radford. Jennifer Radford.”
“Don’t know her.”
Joe kept his eyes on the clock. “No one does. She just finished her day-orientation. It’s her first night working the floor. And Chris Tompkin—she was supposed to train her on nights—called off.”
“Oh, hell.” It was a whisper, but it seemed to carry in the otherwise silent room. Andy shook his head. “Okay.” He was quiet for a moment, thinking again. If they were going to have an untrained nurse passing morning meds he was going to have to send an extra C.O. to the infirmary. Things had a way of getting out of hand when untrained personnel dealt with prisoners. The classes helped, but it took time and working in the environment to learn how to stay alive.
Even experienced nurses ran into trouble. It hadn’t been two months since the last incident. Stanley Frye had stuck Carper Wayne while on their way to the showers. Then, while the nurse was rolling Carper across the exercise yard to the infirmary, Henry John decided to finish him off. Luckily the nurse had just been in the way, not the target. She’d still gotten a chipped tooth, a black eye and some nasty scrapes when he knocked her to the ground so he could plunge a shank—made from a sharpened pork chop bone—into the downed man’s heart.
“How many of my guards are out of the class that just finished?” Andy asked.
“None. That’s who I had. They scheduled every damn one of them to start on my shift. Then they didn’t give me enough experienced officers to train them. Every member of your crew is experienced.”
“Well, thank God for that.”
“Andy, there’s one last thing. It seems the white supremacists managed to get hold of that new Mexican kid that came in last week. We sent him to the hospital. Don’t know if he’ll make it.”
“How in the hell did that happen? He was supposed to be in the nursery, segregated. P.C.’d.” The nursery was what everyone called P.C., Protected Custody, a small wing dedicated to the care of child molesters, snitches, serial rapists, rape victims and the uncontrollably insane. And lately, it housed more and more children—aged thirteen to eighteen—considered dangerous enough to be tried as adults, but too vulnerable to be put in the general population.
“We have no idea. He came up missing about an hour before supper was served. We went looking and found him inside the garbage dumpster behind the maintenance shed.”
Andy shook his head. The brutalized prisoner, Jesse Martinez, wasn’t a menace to society. He was just young and unlucky. He was a good student, never in any trouble with the law, a quiet boy. But there had been a wreck, and a woman died; and since he had chosen that night to get drunk, he had to do some hard time.
“Man, things are fucked up,” he growled. “A kid like that had no business in a place like this to begin with. Goddam politicians. They always figure hollering about being ‘tough on crime’ will win them votes—but there’s no way they’ll raise the taxes to cover the expense of over-flowing prisons.”
“Yeah.” Rod’s face was unreadable. “When the bastards finished with him they marked his cheek and forehead with a knife. Their fucking symbol. We tore the place apart looking for the damned thing but came up empty. The prison is on lockdown until that knife is found.”
“Is there anything more I need to know?”
Both men shook their head.
“All right, Rod, you go home.” Andy already had a headache and knew as the night wore on it would get worse. Lately, they had been on lockdown more often than they weren’t.
Hulbert got to his feet. “I would stay if I could, Andy. But the office would shit a brick.”
“That’s okay.” Andy glanced at Joe. “I hate for you to stay…”
“I know. But I would expect you to stick around if the situation was reversed. Just let me go to the car and get a fresh pair of socks and a couple bottles of water. What did you bring for supper?”
“Barbeque chicken, salad, and a couple of pears. There’s enough for the two of us.”
Rod dropped his lunch bucket onto the table and flipped it open. “I didn’t get a chance to eat. Two sardine sandwiches, a bag of chips, a packet of cookies and a diet Coke.”
“Jeez, Hulbert, no wonder you’re so damn scrawny! That stuff will kill you.” Joe closed the lid to the bucket and handed it back to the man. “Take it home and feed it to the garbage can.”
“Okay, but by about four-thirty, you’ll be wishing you had it.”
“I don’t think so.” Joe was laughing now. “Maybe we can feed that shit to the prisoners until someone squeals on who hit the Martinez kid. It shouldn’t take more than one meal.”
“Sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me,” Andy chuckled, slapping Rod on the back. “Thanks. Go home, we’ll be fine.”
The door opened and the wind gusted in. Kathleen Hanrahan looked their way, giving them her usual easy smile. Her maternity uniform barely fit. Everyone knew at her age she had no business working this late into the pregnancy. But her husband, a laborer at the coal docks, had gotten laid off six weeks after she discovered her birth control measures hadn’t worked. And with three half-grown kids still at home, she was stuck. She either worked until two weeks before the baby was due and came back six weeks after it was born, or she lost her job, her house, her car, and everything else she and her husband had managed to accumulate.
“Good morning,” she said, patting her rounded abdomen. “Nine more shifts to go.”
“Morning?” Joe shook his head.
“My morning.” She looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes until time to punch in. “The roads are so dark. Even the prison lights seem dimmer, like they aren’t putting out like they should.”
Andy flipped his radio to the maintenance channel. The static on the radio drowned out everything except one word. Generator power.
“Just what we need.” Andy looked at Joe. “Better check before we let anyone go home.”
Joe nodded toward Rod. “Go out to the parking lot and get everyone hanging around out there through the metal detectors. I want them all inside the walls, now. And let the afternoon shift know, no one leaves till I say so.”
James Cook sat on the top bunk of his cell, his home for the next many years. He wanted to cry, but didn’t dare. If a guard saw any tears, and decided to do his job, that could land him in the psychologist’s office and probably chained to a bed in suicide watch. It’d be even worse if one of the prisoners saw him crying.
Suicide. The coward’s way out. His mother, her eyes cold and knowing, had stared into his own when she told him that. She wanted him to come home no matter what price he had to pay to do it.
His friends hadn’t been so afraid of that. They thought they knew him. He was tough. He could handle himself. He would have to bash a few heads, the red man always had to do that in prison, but he would be okay. But when they said those things, they hadn’t looked him in the eye. Instead, they had looked at his wiry frame and suggested he start lifting weights right away. They didn’t think he should wait until he was convicted. Just in case.
He had taken their advice. Just in case. But he hadn’t bulked up much. He had the wrong body type for that. Still, he was stronger and his endurance was up. He just hoped he didn’t need either. He was no fool. He was no match for two or three men looking for a fight and a little fun.
For that matter, unless he had an edge, there was no way he could handle even one of these huge mothers. The big ones hanging over the rail, whistling and calling out “fresh meat” as the new fish were walked from the processing area to their cells had left his mouth dry and feeling as though it was full of cotton.
He knew he wouldn’t commit suicide. But just the same, he wasn’t sure he would make it home to his mother. He might—probably would—get killed. He had already made up his mind. He would be no man’s cocksucking bitch. He would die fighting if it came to that. If he couldn’t die then, he would die later, when he went looking for revenge.
Cook forced himself to take a few deep breaths. So far things had gone better than he had hoped. While being processed, his roommate had been a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid from the streets of Chicago. The boy had spent half his life institutionalized in one form or another. Foster homes, county jails, juvenile detention centers. He’d done them all. This was his first trip to an adult prison, but he was already hooked up and doing a booming business for his papa. Since the sharks were being well fed, Cook and the other fish had had a relatively easy job staying out of trouble. As for his new roommate, his permanent roomie, he was a white man in his mid-fifties who made it plain he was doing his own time. He wouldn’t be trying to dish anything out, but he also wasn’t willing to give a fish any help.
Cook was grateful for that. If the man had offered to help, it wouldn’t have been for free. There was no such thing as out of the goodness of your heart in a maximum security prison. He had been warned about the way things worked. Some guy, usually older, definitely stronger and with a track record for busting heads would be friendly enough. Offer a little protection from the others. And then would come the price tag. Loyalty. Sex. And maybe a little hooking to one or two of his friends. But he would keep the others off you. He would make sure you weren’t jumped in the shower or shoved into your room when the screws were busy elsewhere. He would remind you it was better to be one man’s bitch than prey for an entire cell-block.
Cook shuddered and reminded himself he wasn’t effeminate. Young, yes. On the slender side, yes. Girlie, no. Except he didn’t have much facial hair, and almost no body hair. He wished he was built more like the man on the bottom bunk; then maybe he too could sleep.
Paul Howard, his roommate, wasn’t unusually large. But he was big enough and thick enough and exuded a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude without saying one word. He had been asleep for almost an hour, but his light snore wasn’t why Cook was still awake. It was the other noises. The ones coming from other cells. Some of those sounds he recognized, and some he didn’t. He glanced at the iron bars and was actually glad for them. A two-bunk cell with the right roommate was easier to survive than a bed in an open wing. He knew he had been lucky so far, but he also knew his luck would run out. It always did.
“We’ve got a big one, guys! Really big!”
Margo Glenn-Lewis leaned over, squinting at the numbers appearing on the monitor screen, a frown gathering on her forehead. “Damn weird one, too.”
By then, Richard Morgan-Ash was already leaning over her shoulder. Within three seconds, so were Karen Berg and Malcolm O’Connell. Within ten seconds, Leo Dingley had arrived from the room next door. All five scientists working that night in the laboratory buried half a mile below ground in Minnesota had their attention fixed on the monitor.
“’Weird’ is putting it mildly,” Leo said, after a while. “If I’m interpreting these numbers correctly, we’re talking about incredible energy here.”
Berg was already working the figures on her laptop. She carried it everywhere, even to the point of eliciting jokes about whether she took it into the bathroom—jokes which she laughed at but never answered.
“It’s as big as the Grantville event,” she said, her tone hushed. “According to this.”
Morgan-Ash made a face. “Karen, to this day it has never been established what the figures were for the Grantville event.” He gestured with his hands at their surroundings. “That was seven years ago. None of this was operating then, you may recall.” The same meticulousness made him add: “Well. Not for that purpose, anyway. I admit some stray detections were made, but hardly enough—”
“Oh, cut it out, Dick,” said O’Connell. “We’ve crunched the numbers a thousand times over the years, and we know what it had to have been. A time transposition involving a sphere of space six miles in diameter and including umpteen jillions tons of matter—we’ve got that number figured somewhere, too, but ‘umpteen jillion’ does well enough for the moment—requires…”
His own tone had grown hushed. His finger pointed at the screen. “These sort of numbers.”
Morgan-Ash didn’t pursue the argument. In truth, he didn’t really disagree himself. He just found it necessary, as he had many times since he’d joined the project—The Project, was the only name it had—to restrain his colleagues’ enthusiasms. In that, if nothing else, they tended to have the bad habit of conspiratorial rebels since time immemorial to be True Believers.
The reason The Project had no formal name was because it had no formal existence. It was, in point of fact, something of a scientific conspiracy, launched less than a year after the Grantville Disaster by a small group of physicists and mathematicians who’d been completely dissatisfied with the official explanation of the event and just as completely disgusted by the scientific establishment’s apparent willingness to go along with that official explanation.
All the more so because, damnation, there was evidence. Several of the deep underground experimental facilities located in various places around the world to study such things as neutrinos and nucleon decay and cosmic rays had detected…
But all pleas and requests to pursue the matter had been turned down, by governments and universities alike. And, unfortunately, the kind of equipment and facilities needed to detect the phenomena that they suspected were involved was extremely expensive. Not as expensive as something like CERN or Fermi Lab or the Very Large Array, no. But a lot more expensive than anything that would be financed by any single educational establishment or any single private donor.
Fortunately, the newly-elected president of the United States had come to the rescue, in a manner of speaking. Soon enough, his administration had so thoroughly infuriated enough scientists because of its heavy-handed political interference in scientific affairs, that influential figures in academia and even in some upper echelons of various government scientific agencies became more sympathetic to the requests. Not, probably, because they thought they were likely to be successful, but simply because they were anti-establishment. So, eventually, through a complex set of interlocking grant proposals, the conspirators got the funding they needed.
Personally, Richard thought it showed very bad taste for Leo and Margo to refer to their funding as “embezzlement,” even if he’d admit that much of the language in the grant proposals had been…
Well. He preferred the terms “ingenious” or “creative,” himself. “Vague,” certainly. In a pinch, in a sanguine mood, he’d even allow “misdirection.”
On the bright side, the sort of nosy political overseers who’d have the inclination to ferret out the truth behind what those grants were actually funding were not the sort of people whose idea of a junket would include traveling half a mile down into an old iron mine in the backwoods of northern Minnesota. And even if they did, so what? How many of them would be able to make head or tails out of the use to which the equipment was being put, these days? It was, after all—for the most part, at least—the very same equipment that had been purchased and installed for its original purposes over twenty years earlier. The investigator would have to be a specialist in the fields involved to be able to sort out the truth from the flummery.
It could be done. Indeed, that was how Richard himself had stumbled across the truth. He’d gotten puzzled by the reports that were occasionally issued from the Minnesota site and had come to see for himself. But, of course, he was hardly a political overseer in the eyes of anyone except his teenage daughter. Who, fortunately, had taken the transition from southern England to northern Minnesota quite well, even if Richard himself was a bit dubious at times of the results.
“The chronographic configuration looks really weird, too,” said Malcolm. “Nothing at all like the events we’ve observed before.”
“I can tell that much from the numbers,” said Dingley, “but you’re our chronolotrist, not me.”
The term “chronolotry” was what they’d taken to calling O’Connell’s esoteric branch of mathematics, much of which he’d developed himself. Richard understood it only vaguely. For that matter, after his third beer, Malcolm himself would admit he understood it only vaguely.
O’Connell was frowning, now. “It’s hard to explain. Leaving aside that half of it is guesswork. But the difference—forget the energy involved, for a moment, which is also different—is the trajectory. For lack of a better term.”
Margo sighed. “Malcolm, you’re speaking English again. Try it in Greek.”
He flashed her a grin. “Attic or modern?” He looked around for a moment, as if searching for something. “If I could find a clay tablet and a scribe, I could show you the math. Not that it would make much sense to you.”
“And again with the insults.”
“Look, I don’t ask you how your Gandalf computer programs work. Don’t ask me how my Elrond math works, how’s that? The gist of it—we’ve all agreed on this, at least tentatively—is that the earth has been subjected for years now to a hitherto unknown form of bombardment from a cosmic source of some kind. Obviously, an accidental phenomenon, since the location and angle of the impacts have been what you’d expect from happenstance. But this—”
He jabbed a finger at the screen. “This is what you’d expect from a marksman taking deliberate aim. It’s dead on. Not a single joule is going to be wasted just moving tons of earth or water at random. I estimate the impact area won’t be more than half a mile in diameter. If that.”
Karen Berg shook her head. “But, Leo, they’ve all had a diameter smaller than that. Much smaller, we figure. So I don’t see why… Oh.”
“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ But none of them had anything like this kind of energy, did they? Not since Grantville.” He gave Richard a sidewise glance. “Fine. Not since our supposition of the energy levels involved in the Grantville event.”
Berg looked back at the screen. “Jeepers. Margo, do you have any idea yet where it’s going to hit?”
Hearing no answer, she looked down at Glenn-Lewis. Whose face, pale to begin with, now looked as white as the proverbial ghost.
“Yeah,” Glenn-Lewis said. “With this much energy and given the chronoletic readings, the trajectory firmed up much sooner than usual. It’s going to hit not far from here. Somewhere around the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.”
“Holy Moses,” hissed Malcolm. “St. Louis? That’s got a population of… jeez, what it is? Two million people?”
Margo shook her head. “It’ll miss St. Louis by a comfortable margin. But…”
She sprang to her feet. “Who’s coming with me?”
The rest of the people in the room stared at her.
“What are you talking about?” asked Karen. “A field expedition? You couldn’t possibly get there in time!”
Dingley cleared his throat. “And a good thing, too. Margo, this thing is dangerous, for God’s sake. The last time we got a chronoletic impact this powerful, a whole town got destroyed.”
“It might still be dangerous after the fact,” added Karen, uncertainly. “The energy involved… That is the area that has the worst earthquake potential in North America, let’s not forget.”
Leo looked startled. His eyes got a bit unfocussed, as he started calculating.
But this was Richard’s area of expertise. “You can at least put that fear to rest. All things are relative. Compared to the energy involved in a major earthquake, this”—he jabbed his own finger at the screen—“is like tossing popcorn.”
Dingley’s face cleared. “Yeah, Dick’s right. And the energy levels aren’t directly comparable anyway, since most of the impact happens on the fourth dimension, not the first three.” He flashed that same quick grin. “To put it as crudely as I possibly can to you amateurs.”
Margo was looking exasperated. “For Pete’s sake, don’t you understand? They can’t cover this one up!”
Everybody went back to staring at her.
“Look,” she continued, “the only reason they got away with Grantville was because it was a once-only.” She waved her hand. “Yeah, sure—we know there have been dozens since then. Dozens, at least. But why won’t almost anyone listen to us? For the good and simple reason that they’ve been small events and almost all of them happen where you’d expect random impacts to happen. Somewhere in the ocean. Or, if it was on land, somewhere uninhabited or nearly so.”
She shrugged. “So, fine. So some fishermen in the north Atlantic Ocean swear they saw a sea monster, and a small village in Borneo found some sort of weird carcasses washed ashore. But nobody checked the fishermen’s story because fishermen have been telling sea monster stories for centuries and while a biologist did go to that village in Borneo, by the time he got there the remains had rotted and all he could say was that they had definitely been some sort of very large and peculiar marine invertebrate.”
Richard started tugging his beard. “Yes, true. And if a small village in the Sudan disappears, there are unfortunately far too many simpler explanations.”
“Well, there was…” But Karen didn’t pursue the matter. She saw the point also.
Karen was heading for the door. “So it won’t hit St. Louis. Big deal. That part of the United States is populated. And not by illiterate villagers or semi-literate fishermen.”
Richard had already made up his mind. “I’ll come. I think two of us will be sufficient.”
The others looked relieved, although they were trying their best not to let it show. They were quite bold people, actually, in their own way. But theirs was not the sort of temperament you find in tornado-chasers.
Neither was Richard’s, for that matter. But he did have military experience—the only one of the group who did—and so he felt a certain odd sort of obligation.
There was the advantage, with Margo driving her beat-up SUV through Minnesota back roads, that Richard figured the most dangerous part of the expedition would be over with by the time they got to the airport. If they got to the airport.
But all he said was: “I believe the fishermen were from Boston.”
“Yeah, they were. Like I said. Semi-literates.”
Richard was tempted to point out that Boston had probably the highest concentration per capita of universities of any city in North America. But, having once fought his way through a heavy Bostonian accent, shortly after his arrival in the United States, he was not inclined to pursue this argument either.