TIME SPIKE – snippet 2:
The prison’s generator coughed, sputtered, and fell silent.
The walls shook. The ground heaved upward, toppling chairs and tables and people. Captain Andy Blacklock slid beneath the combination melamine and steel conference table as one of the twelve-foot long light fixtures broke free at one end and then crashed to the floor. From where he lay he could see Kathleen Hanrahan. She was wedged against the glass doors, her eyes wide with fear. He tried to move, go to her, get her away from the glass, but couldn’t. He was plastered to the tan colored tiles, unable to lift his head or even his hand.
The dull white walls took on a silver sheen, then dimmed to gray. The metallic blue bars looked almost black. The cream colored, airport style x-ray machine seemed to flatten out, and then regain its shape. His ears popped and the whistling eased, eased a little more, and then was gone. He could breathe again. Could move. The colors returned to normal and the room erupted in shouts as people scrambled to their feet. Few of them were able to take their first few steps without hanging onto walls or tables. They seemed to have lost their equilibrium. Kathleen struggled to her feet and then made her way to one of the white, plastic chairs close to the payroll office. She was flushed red and her breaths came in shallow gasps. Her dark eyes were wide with terror.
Andy’s radio came alive with status reports. Maintenance, zones A through D, the infirmary, communications, psych units: within minutes every sector checked in. The guards sounded calm, but Andy knew they weren’t. They couldn’t be. The prison had a disaster plan for every problem that could be thought up, but it mostly involved just locking down and waiting it out. Staff families were expected to fend for themselves during these emergencies.
The gates were now on manual. The electrical locking system would be non-functioning. That was going to slow the guards down. Chits, sign-out sheets and keys. But it didn’t matter. All inmates were locked away. When the electrical locking system went out, it went out in the locked mode. That was one of the few things inside the prison that was actually fail proof.
Captain Greg Lowry hurried toward him, his face pale. For a second Andy was afraid the man might have a stroke. Greg was in his mid-sixties, just months from retirement. He was fifty pounds overweight, and rumor said he had some major health issues.
Andy liked Greg. He was one of those men who kept his head and his temper. He also kept his own council. He didn’t join in with the gossip and backbiting common to this type of work.
“If there’s ever a disaster, we’re going to be in a bind, Andy,” Lowry had told him at last week’s staff meeting. “The disaster plans are written as though we’re fully staffed. When was the last time you worked with a full crew? We need a plan that’s for us, not the politicians in Springfield.”
Greg came up alongside him and whispered, “We might have gotten lucky. There’s a wall integrity breach; it’s small and it’s outside the confinement area. But we have to find out if we have others—there could be breaches inside the cells.”
Andy nodded. He turned the volume down on his radio—loud enough for him to hear the reports coming in fast and furious, but low enough that if something private came through, it would remain so.
“You’re right, Greg.” With both the afternoon and night crews present, they were still a dozen guards short for what needed to be done. He rubbed his head, trying to think clearly. The dull ache he’d acquired earlier was now a full-blown headache, pounding behind his eyes, across the top of his head, and through every sinus cavity he owned.
“What was that?” Rod Hulbert was on his feet, looking around, trying to get his bearings. “At first I thought it was an earthquake. I figured the Madrid fault line had let go. Now, I don’t know.”
The last time the New Madrid fault line had a major slip was back in the early 1800s. But everyone who lived in the area knew that the one hundred fifty mile long fault line was overdue. They also knew that when it went, it would be a national disaster that would make the New Orleans hurricane fiasco look like child’s play. Over seventy-five percent of the buildings in the quake zone were older buildings made of unreinforced masonry. Buildings like that wouldn’t survive an earthquake measuring a 6.3. on the Richter scale—and the last time that fault line slipped, it was a lot stronger than that.
Nobody knew exactly where the New Madrid earthquake would have registered on the Richter scale, of course, since it had happened almost two centuries earlier. But the three quakes that flattened thousands of acres of forests, changed the course of the Mississippi River, and formed new lakes. Those three quakes had been part of a series of two thousand quakes taking place over a two-year period. They were the largest earthquakes the continental U.S. had ever experienced in the historical record, and had been felt as far away as Canada. They’d even caused the church bells in Washington D.C. to ring.
Andy looked around the entry area. The personnel closest to the metal detectors were going through the process of entering the prison. They were being patted down by nervous guards. The interiors of their lunch buckets were being visually inspected, since the X-ray machine wasn’t working. Andy gave a small sigh of relief. The entry routine was helping. No one had panicked, but quite a few were close to it.
“Go inside, Greg,” Andy said. “Joe and I will put together a couple of teams to walk the perimeter outside the walls. You get the interior checked.” He waved in the direction of the parking lot. “Divvy them up. Send them around to the backside. Make sure everything held.”
By the time Andy was done talking, Greg had already cut through the line and was at the first set of iron gates separating the prison from the main room. The one blindingly good piece of luck involved in the disaster was the timing—thirty minutes later, the afternoon shift would have been gone entirely. Andy would have had to deal with the situation with only forty-two people.
Andy looked at Joe and shrugged. “What a way to start a shift.” He looked around at the stunned faces. “Don’t let anyone else in. Get them outside, walking the perimeter. That’s our first priority. Then radio Lowry. I want No-Man’s-Land walked.” No-Man’s-Land was what they called the killing zone: an eight-foot strip of open ground between two fifty-foot cement walls topped with razor wire that encircled the prison.
A few minutes later the entry area was empty except for Kathleen who was stationed at the gates with orders to let no one enter or leave until Joe or Andy okayed it. The rest of the guards were outside. Their flashlights were on and Joe had passed out one radio to each team of three and sent them to check the walls on the east, north, and south sides of the prison. Hulbert and a half-dozen guards had already gone around to the west end of the facility.
Andy was looking at the administration building. He checked the windows first; none of the glass seemed broken. The bars were all in place. And from where he stood he could see no cracks in the mortar between the brown blocks that made the walls. Everything looked good. There was nothing that indicated structural damage to the three-story, brown limestone building that had been built over a century before.
“It looks solid enough. We might have gotten lucky,” he said, knowing that until daylight came and men could walk the building and examine it up close, there was really no way of knowing for sure.
Andy watched part of his crew as they hurried along side the building’s exterior, their flashlights playing against the eighteen-foot, chain-link fence topped with razor wire which enclosed the compound. He turned east and looked at the wall and then toward town. There were no lights anywhere. Even the hospital lights couldn’t be seen. The entire area was darker than he thought possible—so dark, he couldn’t even make out the shape of the bluff the town sat on.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. He couldn’t remember the woman’s name, but her face was familiar. She usually worked B-house. “Yeah,” he said.
She pointed to the sky.
He looked up and his heart leapt in his chest. The clouds were gone and the sky was filled with more stars than he could remember seeing. Then he realized the temperature had changed. It was warm. Very warm. Almost hot. Hot and moist. And there was a combination sweet and sulfur smell in the air. He looked north, away from the prison, and had to swallow hard. The skyline glowed red.
“Hey, Andy!” Joe motioned toward what should have been the administrative parking lot. “It’s gone. So is the gun range and the visitor parking area. Everything’s been swallowed up by the quake. ”
“That was like no quake I ever heard of.” Andy looked at where the parking lot had been. The blacktop and the cars were gone. Not destroyed, simply… gone. In their place was nothing but bare earth and some sort of odd-looking plants. What sort of earthquake could do that?
“Get inside,” he said, “and get on the phone. Call the state police. Find out what’s going on. Wake up the warden, and get him down here. Then call in the off-duty first responders and E-team officers.”
“Already tried that.” Kathleen was coming through the doors. “Greg sent me out here to tell you the phone lines are down, and none of the cell phones are working. He also said the radios are on the fritz. The ones used for communication inside the prison are working better than they’ve worked in days, but those used for outside…” She bit her bottom lip. “They’re out. Same for the TVs and the regular radio stations.”
James Cook’s ears popped. The walls vibrated and hummed. The metal shelf with its two-inch foam mattress the prison staff called his bunk swayed. There was noise everywhere.
Cook wanted to sit up so he could hop down from his bed, but couldn’t move. He tried to turn his head, but even that was too difficult to accomplish. His eyes stayed focused on the small, iron grated ventilation hole on the wall just a few inches below his ceiling. He watched as the six-inch bars vibrated faster and faster. His vision blurred. The bars faded, almost disappearing, then returned. The hum turned into a roar. The roar became a whistle. The bars returned to their original color, and then one of them fell out. It was lying on his bed and he could now move.
He reached out to the black metal bar. It was warm, almost hot.
Cook slid the bar back into the vent grill and then turned to face the door. It was tempting to try to hide it and hope the screws wouldn’t notice that one of bars was missing. That piece of steel could make a big difference if he wound up having to fight one of the slabs of beef he’d seen when he arrived. But being found in possession of it could also add two years to his prison term. The bar was still loose, if he ever needed to pry it back out again.
Paul Howard, his cellmate, was trying to get out of bed, and all hell had broke loose up and down the tiers. Men were screaming to be let out of their cells. They didn’t want to be trapped inside during a quake or its aftershocks. Guards added to the bedlam, running up the stairs and down the walkways, slapping the metal bars with metal nightsticks and screaming for silence.
He lay down, forcing himself not to look at the ventilation grill. The wall was probably as strong as ever, and they didn’t build flimsy walls in maximum security prisons. Besides, what was the point of thinking about the ventilation opening? Even if he could squeeze himself through—not likely, to say the least—he’d just be looking at a three-story drop to cold, hard cement.
He stared at the blue-gray steel separating his cell from the catwalk, his pulse racing and a thin sheen of sweat glistening above his upper lip. The broken bars would be found the first time the guards dumped the room. And even if they weren’t, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t escape, and even if he could there was no life on the outside for a man on the run.
James Cook was an excellent poker player. Three minutes later, when the screw played his flashlight around the room, his face was proof of that. He gave the C.O. a cold look. Then closed his eyes.