TIME SPIKE – snippet 3:
“Oh, damn,” Margo Glenn-Lewis snarled. “Another one!” As she slowed the rental vehicle, seeing the police roadblock across the road ahead of them, she slapped the steering wheel in frustration. “I didn’t think they’d have this dinky little county road covered also.”
Richard Morgan-Ash was surprised himself. It was still the middle of the night, and he wouldn’t have though the local authorities in a rural area would have been able to mobilize such an extensive set of police roadblocks on such short notice. They’d been stopped twice already by roadblocks, on the first two roads they’d taken.
They knew from their contact over his cell phone with their colleagues still in Minnesota that the chronoletic impact had happened right after midnight. The exact time was impossible to pin down because the impact scrambled time around itself. By the clocks in the underground facility, it had happened at exactly 12:11:08. But the time at the impact site itself might very well have read somewhat differently, to anyone in a position to observe.
Whether anyone would be in a position to observe such an impact, from “inside,” so to speak, was a hotly contested issue among the scientists in The Project. A minority were inclined to believe that anyone caught by such an impact would simply be destroyed. But the main school of thought was that they’d undergo a time transfer but might come out at the other end alive. By way of evidence, adherents to the majority view would point out that—assuming the vague reports were accurate—it seemed that animals coming the other direction—so to speak—came through it fairly intact.
It would help, of course, if the authorities would allow anyone except their own scientists to have access to the remains that had appeared at Grantville. But that whole area, very soon after the impact, had been declared a national security zone. The same sort of tight security had been clamped down around it that you’d expect to find at weapons test sites and top secret installations.
Richard’s opinion was that all the existing hypotheses were simply rampant speculation. They needed hard evidence before they could do anything more than suck theories out of their thumbs.
Margo brought the car to a halt. One of the officers standing by the police car parked in such a way as to bar the road started coming their way.
Richard leaned toward Margo and said softly, “Allow me to do the talking this time, would you?”
Margo scowled. Morgan-Ash decided that amounted to consent, and got out of the car. He wanted to talk to the officer himself because Margo’s notions of how to conduct a conversation with the police seemed to stem from some sort of deep-rooted adolescent resentment. Despite being in her early fifties, he’d found Margo had a strong tendency to rebel against authority simply because it was authority.
Richard had no such inclination, himself. Not because he had any greater respect for authority-qua-authority than she did. He probably had even less. But if there was one advantage to having been an officer in one of Britain’s paratrooper regiments, as a young man, it was that he took authority for granted.
“What seems to be the problem, officer?”
He made no attempt to disguise his pronounced accent. First, because he couldn’t anyway. Richard had the sort of upper class English accent that was so deeply ingrained he doubted if he could disguise it to save his life. Having attended Eton himself, he was skeptical that its storied playing fields had much to do with Britain’s military prowess. For sure and certain, not one of the very tough paras he’d commanded in the field had ever attended the school or even dreamed of doing so. They came from a completely different class altogether. But the school was superb at drumming in the proper accent.
Besides, it would probably help. Decades of movie-watching, he’d found, had ingrained most Americans with the attitude that a man who spoke English with that sort of accent was a legitimate sort of fellow. They’d suspect he would also prove to be obnoxious and overbearing, true. But Richard could defuse that easily enough. The main thing was not to be dismissed outright.
And, sure enough—where Margo had gotten no explanations at all, just curt commands to turn the car around, this officer was willing to talk.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t go any further.” He gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. “There’s been some sort of major accident at Alexander, and until we know exactly what the situation is, we’re keeping everyone out of the area.”
Richard shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not from this area, officer. Alexander refers to…?”
“Alexander Correctional Center. It’s one of Illinois’ maximum security prisons.” The officer made a face. “It’s got over two thousand of the state’s most dangerous felons locked up inside. We’re not sure, yet, but until we know whether or not any of the inmates has escaped, we’ve cordoned off the whole area.”
Richard abandoned his tentative plan to plead a dying relative. Given the situation described, there was no way the police would let them proceed any further. And the mystery of how and by what means rural police agencies had been mobilized so quickly was now solved.
He glanced at the logo on the police car, quite visible in the beam of the headlights coming from their rental vehicle. Illinois State Police. The cars at the two previous roadblocks had belonged to county or local law enforcement agencies, but obviously the state police were coordinating the effort. And, of course, they’d have contingency plans already in place in the event of inmates escaping from a maximum security prison in the area.
“I see.” He gave the officer a very friendly smile. “Well, in that case, I’m afraid our ailing cousin will have to manage on his own for a bit. Do you have any idea how soon the situation will be cleared up?”
“I really couldn’t tell you, sir. We still don’t know ourselves exactly what’s happened. The prison isn’t responding to any calls, either by phone or radio.”
He was clearly not being reticent for the sake of reticence. The man simply didn’t know anything.
Richard got back into the car. “Bad luck, I’m afraid. It seems the impact happened at or near a maximum security prison.”
“Oh… hell.” Glenn-Lewis glared at the cop car, as if it were somehow responsible. “Maybe if we found a really back road…”
“Not a chance, Margo. In fact, they’re likely to have even heavier coverage of such roads, on the theory that an escaping prisoner is mostly likely to seek them out himself.” He shook his head. “No, I’m afraid we’re stymied for the moment.”
Margo began making a three-point turn. Not, probably, because she was worried about getting a ticket for making a U-turn, but simply because the road was too narrow for one in the first place.
“Now what?” she asked, as they drove away from the roadblock.
Richard had been considering the question himself. Not with any great hope of finding what he needed, he looked in the glove department.
“Alas. No maps, as I feared. Do you know how to get to Collinsville?”
“Never heard of it. And there must be a hundred Collinsvilles in the U.S.” A bit defensively, she added: “Look, I’m from Manhattan. There’s New York, there’s Jersey, there’s California way out there on the other coast, and a bunch of stuff in between.”
Richard sighed. “Collinsville, Illinois. It’s near Scott Air Force Base.”
“There’s an air force base in Illinois?” She whistled, softly. “Jeez, and here I thought they were all in South Dakota or Nevada or someplace like that.”
Richard had noticed before that most American intellectuals were astonishingly ignorant about any and all military affairs. In that respect, quite unlike British intellectuals. Or French, for that matter. He supposed it was a residue from the Vietnam War. American intellectuals tended to see that war as a manifestation of imperialist behavior, which they’d not expected from their country. A betrayal, as it were. They were still quietly seething about it, even these many decades later. Whereas British or French intellectuals simply took it for granted that empires were empires and did what empires did. Whether they liked it or not—and they usually didn’t like it any more than their American counterparts—they weren’t shocked by the whole business.
Then again, he reminded himself, that was just a theory of his—which might be as half-baked as the theories of his colleagues that he criticized so regularly. The explanation could simply be that Margo Glenn-Lewis, who’d never traveled more than fifty miles from New York City until she joined The Project, was exactly the geographical ignoramus she claimed to be.
“Yes, there is. It’s a very large facility, in fact. Scott is the headquarters for United States Transportation Command.”
“You live and learn, as they say.” She glanced at him, after negotiating a sharp turn in the road. “And why do you want to know where it is?”
“I have an old friend who works at the base. I haven’t seen him in years, but we stay in touch now and then by email. I’m thinking he might be of some assistance to us.”
“He’s been there for many years. It’s not that far from here, and I’m hoping he might have some contacts in the various police agencies.” Richard gestured at the surrounding countryside, which could barely be seen in the light of a quarter moon. “Look at this way, Margo. We’re not likely to discover anything stumbling around in the dark, now are we? I leave aside the danger of encountering escaped and dangerous felons.”
Margo smiled. “Hey, I ain’t afraid of no convicts.”
She said that with the insouciance of someone who had never actually known any convicted felons. Not the sort who’d wind up in a maximum security prison, at least.
Richard didn’t know any, either, so far as he knew. But the paratroopers he’d commanded hadn’t been all that different, in some ways. Except they were certainly tougher, if not quite as savage.
“Indulge me, then,” he said, smiling also. “I am afraid of that lot. They’re fearsome folk, by all accounts.”
Richard found a map of Illinois in the first petrol station they found that was still open in the middle of night, not far from Carbondale. It took him no more than a minute cross-checking the index with the map to figure out the directions.
He looked around and saw that Margo was already out of the station and climbing into the vehicle outside. He followed, feeling mildly triumphant.
“All right,” he said, after he got into the car. “What we need to do—”
“I know, already. We take Route 51 north to I-64, and then take I-64 toward St. Louis. We’ll pass the air force base along the way.” She grinned at him. “I asked the gas station attendant, what do you think?”
She shook her head. “We’re in the perimeter of a cosmic catastrophe, desperately searching for assistance to get us past official stonewalling, and the man is obsessed with figuring out how to get somewhere the manly way.”
“It’s still cheating.”