Author's Note: All characters and their associated "morphs" depicted in this chapter are purely fictitious. Any similarity to real people, living or deceased, actual events, or classified technologies, is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed in this chapter are not necessarily those of the author.
College Station: Beutel Health Center
At first she thought the whole thing was a dream, a convincingly realistic dream. One brought on by indigestion. But she soon discovered that it wasn't a dream. Natsuko Okuda really was in Beutel Health Center, the bandages that wrapped under one shoulder and across her chest were quite real, and everyone around her really did look the way they did. No masks. No outlandishly complex costumes.
She really did have the appearance of a dog -- Ethiopian wolf, one of the veterinarians that roamed the Health Center had informed her.
It was hard for her to accept. Her memory of how she got this way, of how she had ended up in Beutel with two cracked ribs, was fuzzy. The memory was ephemeral, a quickly receding fog in her mind.
She vaguely recalled waking up-in a dark place with strange sounds and even stranger smells-and she also remembered feeling uncontrollable rage. But beyond that she remembered nothing of her Change. Of being carried into Beutel, she remembered only the sensation of hands supporting her shoulders and legs, warm sunlight on her face, the sting of a needle slipping into her arm, muffled conversation around her.
And then she woke up, albeit with one killer headache.
That was a little over three hours ago.
Now she was sitting on a padded stool, wearing a set of baggy, quickly modified gray surgical scrubs someone had been kind enough to provide her so that she didn't have to wear a hospital gown, and was listening with the rest of the Emergency Room staff not on duty as an EMS crew-Shad, a ruggedly handsome German shepherd morph, and Elise, almost untouched by the Change save for a set of pointed ears and an intimidating smile-recounted war stories from the field. They were all in the lounge, since the ER wasn't equipped with couches, comfortable chairs, or coffee machines, all of which were in high demand by the staff who had been on duty for the entire Change and all the madness that had come with it.
Shad was leaning against an institution green wall juggling three fist-sized wads of rolled medical gauze while Elise recounted this latest story from the front lines of field medicine from her spot sitting on the counter. Three doctors wearing blue scrubs were scattered about the room, one of them fast asleep in a recliner chair, and the other two hovering near the fold-up table and a box of doughnuts. A number of nurses were also present.
"So we get this call, right? Foreign body removal. Right away we think this guy's some kind of sicko, but it turns out he's a businessman. His dog, see, likes to use his beeper as a chew-toy, and drags it all over his house. Anyway, this guy was taking a shower, and his dog runs into the bathroom just as he's getting out... and the guy slips on a wet tile, trips on the dog, and lands on the beeper."
Nattie suppressed a giggle, covering her muzzle with her hands, while more than a few people behind her laughed. Medical humor seemed at first glance to take advantage of other people's pain, but in actuality it took advantage of either their stupidity or their bad luck. Almost as bad, but that was how it was.
"Right on the thing," Shad laughed, tossing one of the gauze-balls to Elise, who caught it and threw it back without missing a beat. "I had the hardest damn time keeping myself from laughing."
"Anyway," Elise went on, "we pack him into the back of the unit and wire him up to the monitors. Then I hear this warning alarm go off, and I start checking his numbers, but there ain't anything wrong with the guy's numbers. So I start a system diagnostic, but the damn alarm keeps going off! Sounds just like the alarm we get when the patient is going into fib, and Shad's up in the front yelling 'Shock him! Shock him!'" Elise grinned and took a sip from her coffee. "Then I realize the sound isn't coming from the monitors, it's coming from the patient. When he fell on his beeper he must've turned it on somehow. Anyway, this guy is cracking jokes all through the ride to County, all through the... what, how long was that extraction, Shad?"
The shepherd-morph shook his head. "Must've been two hours, at least. He was a popular man for the surgeons: world's first beeperectomy. We got to hang around since it was the end of our shift. Damn thing went off three more times during the procedure, and all through it this guy was making jokes." Shad laughed. "Uh-oh, someone get me a sheet of paper, I'm about to receive a fax!"
"I believe I read about that procedure," commented Dr. Bojappa, a recently arrived doctor from the CDC who was part of a team of physicians gathering medical data for a Change Database being put together by the FedGov. He spoke with a noticeable Indian accent and had an appearance somewhat similar to that of a red panda.
Just then the floor trembled, glass containers and metal instruments rattled in their places, and a deep rumbling from outside made the windows shake. The rumbling grew louder and louder-then climaxed in a series of earth-shaking, thunderous explosions.
Then everything was silent, except for the shrill sound car-alarms going off.
Shad stood to attention, letting the gauze-balls fall to the floor, and listened, all traces of humor wiped clean from his face. Elise looked slowly from the window to the ceiling, then back again.
Clink! Nattie swiveled her stool around so that she was looking out through one of the windows. Clunk! Thump!
"What's that sound?" she asked Mikey, the huge rhinoceros-morph who was reclining on the couch across from her. He shook his head, then froze when everyone heard what sounded like hail hitting the side of the building, only this hail sounded a hundred times heavier than anything Nature could make.
Then from out the window to the Emergency Room they saw a flaming chunk of debris smash into the athletic fields with the sound of a thousand aluminum cans being crushed at once, roll three times, then come to a sliding, smoking stop. Everyone there recognized the debris for what it was: the front half of a car.
Shad and Elise bolted out the door of the lounge then through the automatic glass doors of the Health Center into the night, accompanied by a number of other ER personnel, and raced across the open ground, ignoring the possibility of injury from falling debris, to where the burning wreck rested. Shad held his hands in front of his face to shield himself from the heat as he approached the rear of the vehicle. The front end and engine compartment were smashed in almost all the way to the firewall, and the roof was flattened and twisted, torn messily away from the rest of the vehicle-wherever it was. Part of him knew that there was no way anyone could be alive in there, but he called out anyway.
"Hey! Can anyone hear me in there?" he shouted, and heard only the hiss of the fire as a response.
Smoke billowed through the passenger compartment, curled around what was visible of the seats, made him choke and cough as it wafted past him. Then fire began to spread through the interior at incredible speed, and soon the entire passenger area was engulfed in flame so hot that interior components began to melt and bubble.
"C'mon, dammit!" Elise was next to him, pulling on the back of his black EMT jacket, shouting over the roar of the fire. "Nothing could survive through that!"
Phoom! A curl of flame licked up into the orange-tinged sky from near what was left of the engine. The hydrogen from the ruptured fuel cells was combusting.
They turned and started running back to the entrance of the Health Center just as the lights of the building winked out and the emergency lights came on. The explosion must have cut the electrical lines to the university, for all up and down the street the buildings were blacked out. Behind them a solar panel of the type commonly mounted on buildings fluttered out of the sky and plowed into the ground in a cloud of dirt and dust. To their left they saw a red-orange glow silhouetting the buildings of Northside. Fire! There was another explosion and a fireball rose lazily into the night sky behind the darkened Sbisa Dining Hall.
Two ambulances roared to life in the ER trauma reception bay and sped off in the direction of University Drive, sirens wailing and lights flashing. The Emergency Room was now in motion, assisted by years of training and the boost of adrenaline. The nurses and maintenance staff broke out the disaster kits, started handing out the portable X-ray units and hands-free headsets, opened the reserve supplies of O-neg, and issued out the disaster protocol color coding tags. Green for the walking wounded, yellow for the urgent cases, red for the critical, and black for DOA.
Nattie was familiar with the disaster protocol color coding tags. She had gone through classes for field medicine, basic first aid for the battlefield she hoped she would never see. And she didn't like the fact that she saw a lot of black tags being handed out.
Shad and Elise brushed past her carrying full rescue gear and medical equipment to their rig, their faces grave, as the radio behind the admitting desk crackled to life.
"Emergency situation!" shouted a voice on the other side over a great deal of interference.
"Massive expl... heavy casualties. Require imm... evacuation of... wounded. Serious burns and lacer... to all parts of the body. Requesting immediate assistance! One ambulance tot... destroyed and crew injured.... Come in, please!"
Suzie, the crow-morph, lifted the handset, but Nattie didn't hear what she said. Nattie grabbed the nearest person wearing surgical scrubs. "I'm trained in basic life support. What do you want me to do?"
"What's your name, and what's your Power?" the moose-morph doctor asked.
"Natsuko Okuda, Coalition Engineering, Team 5-and I have no idea what this Power thing is."
"Okay, Okuda, go over to that nurse there and she'll find a use for you. She'll also tell you what your Power is, since that's her Power." The doctor pointed to the nurse. "Get going."
University Drive Wes was completely deaf and blind to everything going on around him. He remembered a loud noise, heat, and a sense of sudden motion, of being flung out of the 350, but that was it. Now the only thing he could hear was the steady beat of his heart. But the more he focused on hearing, of seeing, feeling, the more he became aware of the environment around him. His head hurt, and his chest, and his right ankle. Suddenly there was a pressure against his right side, and then on both shoulders. Something pressed his neck over his carotid artery.
Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.
And then he heard wind blowing back and forth across a grassy field. His own breathing.
I'm... not dead? I'm not dead. Do corpses have a pulse?
From a great distance away, barely distinguishable from the sound of his breathing and the steady hammering of his heart, he heard a voice, recognized it for the voice belonging to Reeves, but did not understand it. Yet the more he listened to it the closer it got until, suddenly, she was right there, very close to him, speaking over a constant roaring noise he couldn't identify. "Wes!" her voice quavered and almost broke. "Can you hear me? Squeeze my hand if you can."
He felt her hand slip into his, and he squeezed.
Her voice finally broke. "Oh, thank God!"
"Ree..." he tried to say, but she gently silenced him by clamping his muzzle shut with her hand.
"Don't talk, Wes. You hit pretty hard. Open your eyes."
He struggled to open his eyes, fighting against eyelids that felt as if they were made of lead, and succeeded. Wes was lying on his back with Reeves hunched protectively over him. Small cuts and scratches covered half of her face, and blood was smeared across the dust-covered fur of her jaw line. She held her index finger before his nose, and he followed it left and right, up and down. Wes saw Cheyla standing nearby, a far away look in her eyes, holding the side of her face with a cut and bleeding hand.
"I'm okay," he said, reaching up and pushing Reeves' hand away. She moved back and sat on her haunches while he maneuvered slowly into a sitting position, rubbing his neck as he did so.
Thank God for the C-spine protection built into the Kevlars! he thought, and then his breath caught in his throat.
The street was a scene from right out of Hell. People were everywhere, many of them dismembered or in various states of injury, and mixed in with the still moving, fire-blackened bodies was tons of debris, scattered all across the street. What had once been a smooth six lane highway was now divided unevenly by a trench, located roughly where the second from the right lane would have been, almost twenty feet deep, and rimmed with a two-foot high wall of dirt and concrete. Flame-tinged smoke roiled up from a few spots within the trench and settled in the street, a geyser of water plumed into the night sky from a broken water main, and here and there he could make out what he thought might have been a car or truck or bus, mangled into lumps of twisted steel by the concussion of the explosion. He looked to his left and saw an ambulance-the same ambulance they had been standing next to just minutes ago, laying on its side with its transparent alloy windows buckled and torn, the skyward fender and body- panels dented in by the blast wave. And to his right, standing as immovable as a mountain, blotting out the stars from where he sat, covered in dust and debris, was the Model 350. Part of him wanted to weep with joy that his baby had come through this in one piece, and another part was horrified and ashamed that he could think such a thing. Then his sensitive ears caught the unmistakable cries for help and he was up and on his feet before he knew it, with Reeves right beside him and Cheyla not far behind, searching for the source of those voices.
They didn't have to search very far.
From out of the smoke emerged first one, then two, and then an entire crowd of the walking dead.
They moved in a slow, shuffling gait, leaving behind them a trail of blood and the smell of scorched flesh, fur, feathers and scales.
Wes almost bumped into one of them the smoke was so thick. She had once been an avian-morph, but much of her upper body had been burned clear of feathers, and her skin was brown and utterly cooked, some of it hanging free in sticky sheets. Bits of synthetic multi-colored fabric had melted to her skin. One of her arms was missing below the elbow, and her wings were a total ruin. She stopped and looked at him with milky-white eyes, then reached out with her one remaining charred hand.
"Helllp..." she croaked, and collapsed into a steaming, smoking pile.
"Jesus!" Wes fell to one knee and pressed two fingers to her carotid artery, ignoring how her still- smoldering skin burned his fingers, and felt how weak it was. "Medic!" he screamed, but his voice was lost in the din of the fire and of the casualties around him. "Medic!"
Soon others joined his voice, and in the fire-lit smoke he saw indistinct forms moving from body to body, wearing what could only be Kevlar body armor and also the uniform of the fire-rescue service.
From out of the smoke came one of the latter, wearing black flame-resistant clothing trimmed with reflective yellow and toting a trauma kit.
Far off in the distance he heard the wail of sirens.
The explosion had picked the two of them up and thrown them like rag dolls across the open grass area surrounding Zachry. Tim Wolfe had absorbed the brunt of the blast, sparing little Stephen Fox but also bowling the smaller Cadet down with incredible force, knocking him senseless. But not senseless enough to remember what happened, where he was, and how badly his friend was injured.
The dappled horse-morph looked like a steel-armored porcupine with the back of his Kevlar body armor bristling with shards of titanium reinforced ceramic, small airfoil-shaped bits-gas turbine blades called "buckets." His legs were a bloody mess, since he had not been wearing leg guards because they didn't fit. Blood oozed from the hundreds of cuts, both shallow and deep, inflicted by the ceramic airfoils.
His rifle, dented and scorched, resting on the pavement beside them, would never fire again.
Car, Fox thought numbly as he attempted to drag his unconscious friend by the arms, which were relatively free of injury, but sported some nasty burns he was careful not to touch. Car engine must have exploded. Bad explosion. Went right through the casing. Flying razor blades.
In fact a nearby minivan, missing its roof and rear end, was perforated like a sieve in the engine compartment where tendrils of flame licked against hot metal and blood-sprayed window alloy. The occupants of the minivan hadn't felt a thing; they had been dead in the first instant of the explosion, every bone in their body shattered by the blast. It was only when the minivan landed, some fifty feet from the street, that the turbine engine went critical and shed its blading.
Gotta go, go somewhere...where?
His foot slipped and he fell heavily onto his bottom. A bolt of pain as bright and hot as an arc of lightning shot up from the back of his left leg and he fell to his back, screaming in pain. He looked down at his leg, now with a clarity of mind only pain could bring, and saw a bloody sliver of grayish ceramic protruding about two inches out of his skin.
Fox would have lapsed into an uncontrolled panic right then and there had it not been for the training he had received, training oft-times considered too harsh to serve any practical purpose other than hurt the Cadets. But his training burned through his fear and pain, and he felt his hands reaching down to his leg to gently probe the wound. Fox bit his lip now and again as pain lanced through his system, but he managed to determine that the blade fragment had not penetrated far. It hurt like hell, so that was a good sign in and of itself that there was no nerve damage. He knew there were no major arteries or veins where the blade fragment was lodged, only tough muscle.
There was only one thing to do. Stephen Fox reached up with red-stained fingers to one of his Kevlar vest pockets and removed a field dressing pack-a compression bandage laced with the latest antibiotics and painkillers, six feet of medical gauze, a roll of medical tape, and a morphine epidermal patch. He tore open the waterproof wax paper wrapping on the compression bandage with his teeth, felt his sinuses burn and eyes water, then reached down with both hands to his left leg. Holding his leg still with his right hand -- he knew what was about to happen -- he reached around with his left and clasped the exposed part of the blade fragment...
Pain unlike anything he had ever felt before rocked his body. His leg convulsed explosively, but his right hand kept it still while the rest of his body reeled in agony. Tears coursed down his fur-covered cheeks, but he did not cry out. Fox had never thought that he could feel pain so great that he simply could not utter a sound, try as he might with his mouth opened and teeth bared to the starry sky above. Colors danced before his eyes, and there was an odd roaring sound in his ears. And then it was over.
The Cadet fell back and gasped out loud, his snout wrinkled into a snarl and his eyes glittering red.
He felt like he might be ill, but ignored the nausea as he worked with trembling hands, pressing the bandage against the bleeding, open wound in his leg...
Oh...ooooh, yeah... he thought as the painkillers instantly dulled the pain down to a low throb, enough for him to wrap the bandage in place with his medical gauze and secure it with the medical tape.
All that was left was the morphine patch, which is slipped into his pocket again.
Slinging his rifle over one shoulder, Fox got to his feet, wincing as other small fragments of shrapnel announced their presence in his arms and legs, and muscled the horse-morph partially onto the other shoulder. Then with shaking knees and ragged breaths he began walking in the direction of Beutel Health Center.
Beutel Health Center
Seeing the explosion from the cafeteria was bad enough -- the entire length of University Drive simply erupted in a wall of fire, from the cratered remains of the fuel station all the way to Wellborn Road and down it a ways. But then finding yourself in the dark in the next moment was even worse, especially for John Tratt. He had never really liked the dark all that much -- he'd never admit to being afraid of the dark -- but now, after his Change, he liked the dark even less. Eric didn't seem to mind the dark... but then again, he was just staring off into space right now, his head cocked to one side, almost like he was listening to something after his outburst just a minute ago.
A yell from back in the kitchens accompanied by loud crashing brought the cryptoraptor back into the real world with a start. "My, God! Did we just... was there an..."
The golden eagle got hastily to his feet and pulled on the 'raptor's arm. "Yeah, big explosion. Looks like a gas main went up. We got work to do, come on!"
John half-stumbled through the darkened cafeteria, banging against tables and chairs, while the cryptoraptor moved through the maze with an ease John found almost disgusting. They were just at the swinging doors marking the entrance to the cafeteria when someone with a large flashlight confronted them, shining the beam in their eyes.
"Oh, it's you," Eric heard a familiar voice say. "Good! We've got some jobs for you."
It was the spook, Pryce.
"What about the explosion!" John snapped, looking down from a superior height at the gyrfalcon.
"That's where you're going to be working. Lieutenant Tratt, we've already met. You're going to the basement to assist in bringing the building's computers back on-line, and hopefully re-route some power to this part of campus. Lieutenant Bolzhauser, you're to be teamed with an EMS crew. Your Telepathic abilities will assist in finding survivors. Any questions? No? Good. Get going. I'll be in the Emergency Room."
"You're a doctor?" John asked as they moved quickly to the emergency elevator.
"Navy corpsman, a long time ago. Still keep current, though."
Intersection of Ross and Spence Street
Fox had to rest. His arms and legs burned, the wound in his leg was hurting more now, and his heart and lungs felt as if they were about to explode under the strain he was putting on them. Tim was growing more alert, for he would groan in pain every time Fox stumbled. But his groans were becoming weaker every time. At the rate his friend was losing blood, and at the rate they were moving toward Beutel, Tim would be dead before they even reached the halfway point. Stephen had to do something, and do it in short order.
They were in front of the white-faced Richardson Petroleum Engineering Building, at the corner of Spence and Ross Street, beneath a stand of great oaks. The moon was a silver crescent just breaking over the tops of the buildings, and the night insects were singing their strange songs. Fox could hear the sirens of ambulances and fire trucks on University Drive-too far to walk with Tim, since his injuries were too serious to be treated by an EMT crew. No, Tim's only hope was Beutel and the doctors of the ER.
And that means I have to find a faster way of getting us there. But, dammit, how?
His eyes raked their surroundings...and fell upon a small car. It was a relatively old sedan, probably fifteen years old, which meant it probably wasn't equipped with any advanced theft deterrent features like an ignition kill switch.
Good enough, he thought, easing his big friend down onto one of the concrete benches surrounding the darkened statue of an oil worker toiling with a pipeline nozzle. "Okay, buddy. I'm gonna go get us some wheels. You sit tight, hear me?"
The horse-morph groaned something, and his eyelids fluttered. Tim was in a bad way.
As much as Fox would have liked to, he couldn't stay to comfort his friend. He'd waste too much time, and Tim probably wouldn't even be aware of the other's presence. It was the car or nothing... or was it?
"Damn! The hands-free," Stephen mumbled aloud, thumbing the radio button on his belt to VOX.
"This is Cadet Fox to anyone on this channel, please come in!"
Nothing. There wasn't even the hiss of static over dead air. Fox looked down at the radio unit and swore. The radio's casing was dented and cracked, a piece of shrapnel embedded in its circuitry.
Well, this is certainly turning out to be one Charlie Foxtrot after another!
Now the only hope he had of saving his friend's life was the car.
Digitigrade feet scrambling across the brick tiling of the sidewalk, Fox ran to the side of the automobile and tested the door handle. Locked.
Fox bent down and pried loose one of the paving bricks, hefted it in one hand, and brought it down with all his might against the window.
Clang! The brick bounced off the transparent alloy surface, leaving only a streak of dust and a slight indentation.
Again the Cadet brought the brick down on the window, and again it bounced away, leaving him with a sore elbow and tearing the skin on his hand. "Break, you bastard!" he hissed as he brought the brick down once more, this time with all his might.
The brick shattered into three pieces upon contact with the window, and his heart fluttered.
"Okay, okay, okay!" Stephen babbled as he fell away from the car, clutching his bleeding hand and feeling tears well up in the corners of his eyes. He unshouldered his rifle, chambered a round, set the selector switch to three-round burst, removed the safety, and aimed at the window.
BRAAAT! The assault rifle bucked against his shoulder and lit up the area around him with its muzzle flash. Three empty shell casings leapt out of the chamber and clattered to the ground five feet away.
As the Cadet's night vision returned to him after the disruption caused by the muzzle flash, he saw that the three rubber bullets hadn't done a thing, merely flattened themselves against the window. Not truly believing what he was seeing, Stephen sighted again on the window and loosed another three-round burst... but when his vision returned to normal he saw there were now six blobs of rubber plastered against the window.
His spirits sank, and he lowered the rifle. "I'm sorry, Tim. Oh, God, I'm sorry."
The horse-morph didn't respond. He was too far gone now.
"I'm sorry this fucking car has alloy windows!" Fox snarled as he raised his rifle and slammed the butt of it against the front side passenger window, then the rear passenger window.
Stephen froze, staring with wide eyes. The rear passenger windows were standard automotive glass! He laughed out loud and stepped away from the vehicle about fifteen feet, set his rifle to full-auto, then turned back to face the car.
BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT! Shell casings poured out of the chamber like a fountain as the catalytic reaction between explosive and firing pin sent projectiles down the ceramic barrel from the superalloy firing chamber at over a thousand rounds per minute. The rear window was perforated in thirty- four places, its surface crazed by millions of tiny fracture lines, and the opposite window exploded outward in a shower of tiny glass fragments.
With smoke wafting from the muzzle of his rifle, Fox walked to the side of the car and messily smashed the window into the rear of the car, reached in with his free hand and undid the lock to the front passenger seat. The door opened easily, and he reached across the interior to unlock the door to the driver's side.
"Okay, Tim," the Cadet said, "I'm gonna get you to Beutel. Hear me? Tim!" He felt for a pulse.
"Alright, Tim, you're alive. Now, I'm just going to lift you here, and we're going to go over here to this car. There, now I'm putting you inside, okay? I've got the seatback lowered as far as it can go, and I'm -- ungh! -- putting your feet up here on the dash. Stay with me, buddy." Fox closed the door gently then slid across the hood of the sedan and climbed in behind the driver's station, tossing his empty rifle into the back.
Shit, no keys! But it's an older car, so...
He felt under the dash for the appropriate panel, pulled it off, and was rewarded with the sight of a mass of multicolored wires. Fox thumbed through the tangle, found the two he was looking for, yanked them loose from their terminals, and touched the exposed wires together. A blue-white arc of electricity leapt from one wire to the other, and the engine sputtered. He touched the wires again, this time holding them longer, and heard the engine power up.
Yes! I always knew those Internet sites would come in handy, someday, he thought as he tied the wires together. Then he put the car in gear and sped away down the darkened street beneath the silvery glow of the moon, heading for Beutel Health Center.
"You're gonna make it, Tim. Just hang in there."
Basement Level 2: Network Operations
The elevator doors slid open, revealing a long hallway lined with steaming pipes and illuminated only by the emergency lamps. Someone was waiting for him, one of the lab techs he'd seen when they had wired him up with the in-Sense headgear earlier in the day. Bill, Tratt remembered now, who looked like your standard run-of-the-mill domestic canine.
"Lieutenant, if you'll follow me quickly, we've got the necessary gear wired to the campus network. Please put this on," he handed the golden eagle an odd-looking curved length of plastic with what looked like legs sticking out the sides. It also had a long "tail," tipped with a standard computer bus plug.
"What is it?"
"An in-Sense headset, already custom formed for your head. Those little things that look like suction cups are SQUID epidermal electrodes, dermatrodes. It's got joints built along its length so that it maintains good contact with your skin even when you're moving around. Cable faces the back."
They began walking swiftly down the length of the hallway. Steam wafted up around them as they passed a hot water pipe, then turned right down another hallway with a green steel door at the end. A warning sign next to the door read: RESTRICTED AREA, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. The door was open and cold white light poured out into the hallway, reflecting from the condensation collected on the water pipes. Tratt regarded the in-Sense headset, remarking with some humor about how the thing looked like a spidery alien brain-parasite. Then he lowered his head and put the in-Sense gear on, positioning it so that it conformed to the contours of his avian skull. The dermatrodes slid easily between his feathers and made solid contact with his skin, while the cable link-up dangled against the back of his neck like a plastic ponytail.
"Good fit," he commented.
"Thanks," the tech said, allowing the officer to enter the room first. "Modeled it off of Telemetry's computer reconstruction of your head, minus the feathers of course."
The room was bathed in sterile white light from banks of overhead fluorescent lamps. The floor was made up of removable white tiles covering the sea of wires beneath their feet-a sea that exerted a strange magnetic pull on Tratt's body and formed a warm and comforting sensation in the back of his mind. Banks of server computers lined one cinderblock wall, and in the middle of the room, raised above the rest of the floor and ringed by metal railing, was a control station composed of a swivel chair-modified to conform to his body-surrounded by flat-screen color monitors and keyboards, not that he'd be needing either. The floor tiles immediately behind the control station had been removed, revealing the guts of the network. A single wire, very thick, snaked up from the open access panel along the floor to the control station, then along the back of the chair where it was taped in place near the headrest. The wire was equipped with the female attachment to the in-Sense headset he wore.
Without any prompting, John climbed into the control station's seat behind the TFTs and waited as the tech helped rig him into the network.
"We've equipped the link with a regulator so you don't overextend yourself," the technician informed him. "You'll have almost unlimited access to any single point on the network, but your Power will be limited if you try to access more than one system at a time. We've got a network team set up in another part of the building, and you'll be able to communicate with them through this microphone on the desk, here. If you need to do more than one thing at a time, let them know what it is, and they'll take care of one half while you're working on the other. They're rigged with virtual gear and are some of the best in the business, but they don't have your Power. Your primary objectives have already been uploaded to the regulator, so you'll know what they are when you back in. Additionally, since the Change blitzed the quantum processors in the mainframes, we've had to shift everything over to semiconductor technology, running the network off of lots of smaller mainframes, so don't expect instant responses from some systems. We've got people looking at the quantum processor problem right now, and we should have those machines up pretty soon. Any questions?"
"None. Let's do it."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the lab technician bring the two cables together. "Connecting in-Sense... now."
Tratt experienced tunnel vision and felt as if he were falling back through the chair, down into the fiber-optic maze of wires behind him. When his vision cleared, he found himself floating in an entirely different environment, one created by his own mind as a coping mechanism for the enormous amount of data flooding into the sensory centers of his brain that would have stunned anyone else. He floated above a sea of digital mercury, lined with glowing green pathways of cold flame. The sky above him was pure black and infinite, but the latticework of green data lines continued out around and above him in layer after layer, dotted here and there with a brilliant glowing orb where the data lines intersected. These glowing objects, constructs of his subconscious, were the data nodes of the campus.
It was the first time he had experienced this particular vision of the digital domain, a vision that should have blown his mind with its titanic scale and complexity like an astronaut suddenly being confronted with a vision of the entire galaxy. Oddly enough, though, he felt... nothing. Only a cold, clinical detachment, as if all of his emotions had somehow been left behind in the meat sack sitting in the chair down in the control room. He was here, now, and he was 'mancing the campus network. And that was all that mattered at the moment, 'mancing the network of campus proper.
At the thought of the word "campus," the fine meshwork of the data lines moved around him and reformed itself from the ground up into a three-dimensional model of Texas A&M University. The buildings were easy enough to identify because he saw a faint, ghost-like outline of their exterior, again a construct of his mind to help him adapt.
"I'm in," he said, hoping that the technician heard his words on the flip side of reality. "Accessing central power," he said next, following a driving instinct that told him to FIND BREAKS IN POWER LINES!
The world around him darkened, and he floated up above the construct so that he was looking straight down on the campus. The green data lines faded out of existence and were replaced with thicker blue lines that indicated the location of underground power lines. Most of these main power ley-lines were dark, with only the smaller lines of the emergency generators lit up.
Where are the main lines broken?
Flashing red beacons lit up all along Northside, and he tucked his wings and stooped upon the nearest rotating beacon.
"There are ten major power lines severed along Northside," he said for the benefit of the technician standing behind him. "Campus proper is functioning on reserve power alone. Stand by, attempting to re-route reserve power from non-critical facilities."
He rocketed back above the construct, side slipped across the campus to the academic buildings, and reached out with his mental hands to the power nodes below the buildings. With a single thought he shunted the emergency power from the academic buildings to Beutel Health Center, providing more than enough power to bring the building back up to full operational status.
A warm wash of-something-flowed in and around his digital body, tingling along his spine and through his brain. Yes, full power had been restored; he could feel it. Below him the construct of the campus flared up in brilliant colors, and he could see much more detail than before, meaning that he could access far more data.
Tratt turned his attention next to the bioreactor complex, a mass of power and data lines, warning beacons and data nodes. He knew that the emergency generators, which had been running for most of the day, would eventually run out of fuel and trip out, plunging the campus back into darkness. A catastrophic power failure like that was not an option, nor was attempting to connect back into the main BCS power grid -- itself in spotty condition after the Change. TU Power was having trouble enough trying to coax their gas turbine powerplants back on-line, and a power slurp from out of Navasota or Waco was out of the question, so outside sources of electricity were out of the question. The bioreactor complex, on the other hand, was an alternate fuel source for the campus power stations, running off of biomass gasification, and had an almost unlimited fuel supply since most of this came in the form of raw sewage, and the sewage system was still running on campus, thank God. So Tratt cast himself down into the bioreactor complex's network and began his work, again following that strange instinct that could only have been his primary objectives, uploaded earlier by the technician. "I'll be needing the network team for this," he said.
"We're here," was the distant response.
"Work on stopping these overflow problems, they're located here and here," he touched the nodes and made them flare up so that the network team could more easily find them using their conventional head-mounted displays and datagloves. "I'll work on priming the gasifiers for use."
"We're on it."
Four balls of light zipped past him leaving sparkling gold trails in their wake, heading for the nodes he had indicated. These must have been the constructs of the network team.
"Lieutenant?" It was the technician.
"I've got a request from Mr. Pryce. He wants to know the status of the reserve fuel tanks for the C-Nest."
Tratt was quiet for a moment while he reached out with part of his mind to the C-Nest construct, felt along its edges until he reached the reserve tanks.
"The fuel tanks in the C-Nest will be empty in approximately seventy-two hours. The building is running on bare-bones reserve, probably supplying full power to only a few components. I cannot access any of the building's networks; they're cut off from the outside. I don't know why."
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
"Certainly," Tratt said as he returned his full attention to the gasifiers of the bioreactor complex, not giving the odd request any further thought.
Between Ross and Jones Street
The sedan skidded dangerously on the wet masonry of the fountain area dividing Ross Street and Jones Street, and Fox almost lost control of the speeding vehicle as he spun the wheel to correct for the fishtailing action. Tim wasn't making noises anymore, not even groans of pain, and his pulse was weak. Blood saturated the floor of the car, and Fox had to keep the window rolled down, lest his new nose become overwhelmed with the scent of imminent death.
Fox flew over the curb of the masonry area and scraped the underside of the car against the concrete, sending a shower of sparks out behind them. Ahead loomed Beutel Health Center, all lit up like a Christmas tree while every other building was almost totally blacked out, and Fox stood on the horn as he brought the sedan to a hard, skidding stop in front of the entrance to the ER. He threw the car into park before he leapt out and ran around to the passenger side where he began to remove Tim's still form from the passenger seat.
A group of medical-types came out of the ER, wheeling a gurney and portable monitor over to the car.
"Help me! My friend's loosing blood and I think he's gone into shock!"
"Okay," said the leader of the medical group, "lift on one, two, three!"
The nurses laid Cadet Timothy Wolfe out on the gurney and began to wheel him back into the building, wiring him for the monitor as they went. Electronic chimes and bleeps issued from the monitor as it detected heart beat, breathing rate, and a myriad of other biological rhythms that were displayed as fluctuating lines on the color screen of the portable unit.
"This guy's a pincushion," he heard one of the trauma team mutter as they burst through the brightly lit entranceway to the ward, and Stephen saw how deathly pale his friend was.
Hang in there, Tim.
Beutel Ambulance Bay
"Whoa! You two, wait up!" Pryce hollered at the two EMTs, already in their rig with the engine running and in gear, as he and Eric came through the back doors to the ambulance bay.
The woman in the passenger seat stuck her head out the window. "Don't have enough room to take extra passengers, pal. You two're gonna have to hijack a car or something."
But Pryce wasn't having anything of this. He pulled open the rear side door to the ambulance and gestured for Eric to hop in.
"Goddammit!" the EMT snarled as she undid her seatbelt and jumped out of the ambulance, planting her face just inches away from the smaller gyrfalcon. "Are you deaf?! No passengers!" From the driver's seat the other EMT, who looked like a German shepherd, turned and glared at the dino-morph, who gazed back with a completely neutral expression. "We don't have time to fuck around, buddy. Get the lizard out of our rig!"
Pryce grabbed her by the jacket and slammed her against the side of the rig, lifting her off of the ground, despite her height advantage. "Listen to me, young lady. This is Lieutenant Bolzhauser. He is a Telepath, and will be able to help you find survivors better than any sensing devices you've got on that tin can. He goes."
"You can hear people's thoughts?" the shepherd-morph asked. "You can sense where they are?"
His partner outside heard the question, and _everyone_ near the ambulance heard the answer.
The woman's face tensed and her eyes went out of focus for an instant as her mind tried to cope with its first experience of receiving a telepathic message. Pryce set her back down on her feet, though her legs were a bit wobbly as she fought to regain her composure.
"Well, shit!" The driver turned back around in his seat and activated the lights. "Welcome aboard, El-Tee. Elise, let's go!"
His partner, Elise, got back into the rig, closed the door, and they were off, sirens blaring out through the night air. Pryce watched them go, then turned and went back into the Emergency Room, joining a group of the CDC doctors and procuring a trauma smock and a wad of latex gloves from a nearby supply cart.
"Okay, doctors, you've got seniority here. Where do you want me?"
They had this side pretty well set as far as medical assistance went -- meaning that this side had some medical aid for the wounded, albeit woefully inadequate for the sheer number of wounded. Sure, the Cadets were all trained in BLS (Basic Life Support), but BLS didn't exactly cover the kinds of wounds they were seeing. First- and second-degree burns and minor lacerations were what the Cadets could handle (on the simulators), but not chemical exposure, third-degree burns, dismemberment, or penetrating/perforating wounds. And what training the Cadets had received had been for the human body, not variations thereof.
Where do you take the pulse on a high-degree lion-morph? Were lacerations across the chest of an avian- morph more critical than lacerations to the extremities? There were no real answers. All of the people who knew anything about morph anatomy and how to treat trauma on a morph were based out of Beutel in the form of physician/veterinarian tag teams.
That meant that people who could have been stabilized in the field would have to be evacuated to Beutel, far more than what could be carried in the five remaining ambulances.
But the ambulances couldn't traverse the twenty-foot deep trench that had been blown into the middle of University Drive, nor could a trauma team with a gurney or stretcher, what with the steep sides lined with jagged debris and all. So while one side received medical attention the other was left unaided, and the cries of the wounded from the other side of the blast trench were heartrending, especially for the EMT crews. The only help their side could offer came in the form of local and campus-based fire engines armed with massive water cannon turrets, which were hosing down structural fires. A command post for the fire-rescue service had been set up, and landlines for the hand held hoses were being placed. It was by the grace of God that the emergency water lines had automatic shut-off valves, otherwise the fire hydrants sunk into the sidewalks would have been without pressure as all the water would have poured out of the broken pipes. Normal city water lines, though, were gushing into the trench, extinguishing anything on fire down in there but also forming a moat filled with submerged obstacles. The water was already about a foot deep, and slowly rising.
Wes saw this as he checked for a pulse on one of the many unmoving humanoid forms littering the street-so horribly disfigured by fire and God knew what else that he couldn't even tell what animal they resembled. The skin of this one's neck was black and leathery, hot to the touch, and had that unique, indescribable smell of scorched flesh. There was no pulse. He looked over to where Reeves was, crouched over another victim. She looked him in the eyes and shook her head. "This one's gone, too."
"Water... please... somebody, please. Water..." The begging voice came from the other side of the trench, within which a small compact car was slowly slipping beneath the murky brown water, its fuel cells burning a bright blue that reflected off of the water's surface.
An EMT, hearing the voice, came rushing up from behind them carrying a LifePak, then skidded to a stop when he saw the condition of the trench.
More voices joined the first.
"Someone... help me!"
"Mommy? Mommy, my legs hurt... I'm thirsty..."
The EMT paced back and forth like a caged animal, his face a war of emotions. Wes felt a lump form in his throat as someone on the other side began praying...and choked back a sob when the cry of an infant reached his sensitive ears. He saw that Reeves had streaks of tears running down her dust-covered cheeks.
"Wes," she said in a hoarse voice, "we've got to get across there, right now."
"How? We ain't got a Bailey bridge! Nothin' except a whole pile of concrete and cars, and nothin' to move that with!"
A maroon pumper truck rumbled into position behind them with its high-intensity lights cutting sharp beams through the dusty air, and came to a stop. Hydraulic brace arms lowered from the sides of the vehicle to keep it stabilized while at the same time a squad of firefighters jumped out of the rig to set up landlines and position the water cannon turret to cover a group of burning buildings across the street. Reeves turned her head to watch, and her eye caught upon the gleam of metal from the roof of the pumper truck. Extension ladders.
"I'll be..." Reeves got to her feet and began to walk toward the rig, and as the idea in her mind solidified into a plan she found herself picking up the pace until she was nearly running at the end. She pulled the coat sleeve of the nearest firefighter, a rat morph who was helping unload one of the landlines, handing it off to a knot of his fellows. "How much weight will those ladders hold, free of support?" she asked when he turned to face her.
"Thousand pounds at the tip," the rat morph replied immediately.
Wes came trotting up behind Reeves. "What's up?"
She ignored him for the moment. "You got one of those Jaws of Life gizmos onboard?"
"Yeah, starboard forward storage bin, why?"
Reeves disappeared around the right side of the rig, heading immediately for the storage bin, which she found and pulled open. Wes stood where he was, scratching the back of his head in wonderment. What was she up to? The rat-morph leaned around to see what all the noise was up front, and when he saw her muscle out the massive bladed device that was the Jaws of Life he dropped the landline and was upon her in a heartbeat.
"What the shit, lady?!" the fireman yelled, grabbing hold of the device and shoving Reeves hard in one shoulder. The commotion attracted the attention of about five other firemen -- very large firemen.
Reeves staggered back, but maintained her grip on the handle of the Jaws of Life. She snarled, showing her large fangs, and shoved back, knocking the firefighter clean off his feet. An elephant-morph darted in with huge hands and restrained her; Wes felt a pair of similar such hands clamp down on his shoulders. "Look here, you," Reeves growled, struggling against the iron grip of the elephant-morph firefighter. "Those ladders can take a thousand pounds free weight, and each section's about forty feet long. Use your imagination! I'm going to put out a bridge. Now either you help us, or get the hell out of our way!"
Wes blinked. The firefighter blinked. He felt the huge hands lift off of his shoulders.
Why hadn't I thought of that?
"Shit," mumbled the firefighter. "Gimme those. We're going to have to cut those ladder segments free. The Jaws'll take too long." He took the Jaws of Life back and replaced them in the storage bin, and pulled out a massive saw, something out of a dentist's worst nightmare-or fantasy, depending upon the dentist. "The 'cip saw is what you were looking for! Alright, men, let's build a bridge!"
"Yes, Captain!" the firefighters bellowed in unison, and leapt into motion.
"You're-you're the fire chief of College Station?" The voice coming out of the tiger-morph Cadet was very small, and her ears were laid back in dread.
"Speaking." The rat-morph's long face broke into a good natured grin, and he pumped the throttle of the reciprocating saw experimentally, making the machine shriek to life for a second or two and turning the razor-sharp blade into a blur of motion.
"Boy, Reeves, you sure can pick 'em," Wes said with a grin as the fire chief handed the 'cip saw up to one of the firemen on the roof of the pumper truck.
"Not one word, Wes," she mumbled, feeling the skin on her face flush red beneath her fur.
There were three firemen on top of the pumper truck, two at either end of the ladders, and the third with the 'cip saw. He walked along the length of the ladder with the electrically powered device, stopping at each slide block to thread the saw blade between the ladder segments before gunning the throttle and cutting through the block. The diamond carbide blade, normally designed to cut apart Fords and Chevrolets with surgical precision, made short work of the slide block -- it took perhaps two seconds to cleave the solid steel component -- and the firemen at the ends of the ladder lifted the liberated section, handing it down to their comrades on the street. Then the firefighter turned around and began work on the centrally mounted ladder, this one composed of three such forty-foot segments. It took only a minute to chop the ladder into its individual sections, and then they were cutting apart the ladder mounted on the far left of the rig. In the end they had seven forty-foot ladder sections. Seven bridge frames.
"How we gonna cross 'em?" one of the firefighters asked. "Most of our feet can't walk on those rungs, not like they used to."
Damn! Can't cross a bridge made of rungs with digitigrade feet. Reeves looked around at the gathered firefighters. They were all watching her, as if they were waiting for her to come up with the solution. "Captain?" she asked, figuring he had authority in this situation-which he did, technically.
"This is your show, Cadet," the rat-morph told her.
From across the trench more pleas for help rose to her ears, and suddenly she felt alone, powerless. "Well... uh... I think... um."
Dear gods, what have I gotten myself into? I can't think under this kind of pressure! "Okay... do we have anyone with... with plantigrade feet?"
"Feet that fit into boots! Normal human feet! There's a little hardware store across the street, and we can take sheet plywood from there as paneling to walk on. But someone's got to get over there, first. Now, can anyone still wear boots?!"
The firemen looked to one another. They were all wearing the typical firefighter garb of flame- resistant black-with-yellow-trim overcoat, and beneath that whatever of their uniforms that still fit. Most of them stood there uncomfortably because their tails had to remain within the fire-resistant material of their uniform pants, since personal comfort had to give way to security when dealing with fire. Yet no one was wearing their boots, since they all had assumed a digitigrade stance. All except one, and he stepped forward from the others, stiffly and painfully because his feathers caught easily against the inside of his exposure gear.
"I'm not planti-whatever, but I got bird's feet." His face blended in perfectly with his black uniform, and a long, curving beak of similar midnight color projected from beneath his helmet. Firelight reflected from his dark eyes.
"Think those'll do?" Reeves looked over to Wes, who shrugged. "Okay, it's going to have to be enough. Let's drop the ladder in place."
The two Cadets joined in with the firefighters as they lifted one of the ladder segments and carried it into place, perpendicular to the trench. Then the elephant-morph and bison-morph-the two who had originally moved to restrain the Cadets-ran to the end of the ladder nearest the rim of the trench, where they would ensure the ladder was firmly anchored by the embankment at the edge. When they waved their readiness, the rest of the group lifted their end of the ladder up into the air and began to walk toward the trench, raising the tip of the ladder further and further into the air until it was nearly vertical, sticking forty feet into the smoke-filled air. And then they gave it one final push and let gravity do its work. At first the ladder seemed to be stuck, but then the tip began to move out over the trench, polished steel highlighted orange by the fires in the trench, and began to move faster and faster as the ladder fell across the span of the abyss. Their end of the ladder made contact with the top of the earthen embankment first, effectively turning the ladder into a giant lever and forcing their end to shoot up into the air with incredible force, nearly smashing into two firefighters who had their heads too close to the path of travel. Then the tip of the free end crashed down onto the top of the embankment on the other side of the trench, and the ladder shuddered to a halt. Reeves looked up over the rim of the trench and couldn't help but grin. The ladder had spanned the entire width of the trench, and still had room to spare. They had their bridge.
The raven-morph-not equipped with wings like John was, she noticed-moved up to the end of the ladder bridge, hesitated, and removed his overcoat. "No sense in wearing this to cross a bridge," he said, handing it down to another firefighter. Then he climbed onto the bridge and took his first steps out over the gaping maw of the trench, wrapping his birdlike toes around the rungs as he went.
Everyone watched as the lone shadowy figure moved in fits and starts across the narrow bridge.
"Come on, Pitch," one of them murmured. "You can do it."
"His name is Pitch?" she asked.
"Yeah, as in 'black as.' He came up with the name this morning." The further out he ventured the more confident became his movements, until Pitch was walking quite comfortably along the length of the improvised bridge. He reached the end of the bridge without incident, and disappeared over the edge of the other side. During the time he was out of sight, presumably breaking into the hardware store and "borrowing" the sheet plywood, their little group set about widening the bridge, laying out two more spans on either side of the first bridge. Reeves reasoned that having two spans across the trench would be more stable than one when Pitch came back with the sheet plywood -- and there he was, emerging from the smoke, laboring under the load of three sheets braced against his back. He dropped the lumber and began to place out the sheets lengthwise, using all three of the closely spaced ladders to distribute the weight.
It only took a few minutes, but the last piece of sheet plywood dropped into place, and Pitch stepped off of the ladder and collapsed against the side of the embankment in a cloud of dust and soot, his sides heaving and his thin legs shaking. As soon as he was clear of the bridge the crowd of EMTs, who had begun to materialize out of the night, started their crossing, going two by two across the span, each team carrying a stretcher and a trauma kit. Reeves knelt down next to the ebony fireman, who had a crudely made oxygen mask pressed to his nares, busily flushing his lungs out with the pure O2, and took him by the shoulder. "That was sharp work, Pitch."
"Thanks... Cadet... That was... a sharp idea... ladders," the firefighter huffed.
"Hey, Cadet! Look out over there." The rat-morph pointed down the street. "Looks like your idea is catching hold."
Reeves stood and looked in the direction the fire chief pointed, and what she saw made her want to cry. All along the street teams of EMTs and firefighters, even civilian men and women who had joined the rescue effort, had formed teams at the edge of the trench near where the pumper trucks were stationed, and were spanning the trench with their own ladder bridges. They covered their bridges with whatever was available: ambulance trauma boards, aluminum door panels from the fire engines, even roof-mounted solar panels that had been knocked off of buildings by the blast.
"Stand by!" came the cry of alert. "We've got a whole bunch of people coming back from the other side."
The first group of EMTs came back across the bridge, stepping from the darkened regions of the other side into the fire lit glow of the bridge, bearing between them a still form on a stretcher. And behind them came another pair of EMTs, and behind them another... "We don't have enough ambulances to take all these people. Can't take the rig off station, or we risk a major fire breakout." The fire chief paced back and forth as the fire engine behind him roared to life with its water cannon, sending a massive plume of water across the trench and into a cluster of burning buildings. He should have been at the control station, but he'd just arrived when this young spitfire of a Cadet had sidetracked him with her bridge project-not that he minded the distraction at all. Hell, that woman probably saved a bunch of lives with her quick thinking. But the problem still remained; they had to get these people out of here as soon as possible.
"Captain?" It was the other Cadet, the coyote-morph. "We're gonna be swamped pretty soon with the incoming. I've got a Zil Model 350, and it'll take four litters in the back, no problem, maybe even six. That's three ambulance loads right there... plus an EMT or two."
"Great! Bring it on over here and park it next to the EMS rig. Also see if you can scrape together some other Cadets to police up a hundred-foot square area for Life Flight to get in here, and also on the other side. I'm about to call them right now."
"I'm all over it, sir," the Cadet said, popping him a salute before disappearing into the misty fog kicked up by the water cannon.
Northside Parking Complex
Cheyla's claws clicked against cement as she ascended the four flights of stairs to reach the upper- most level of the Northside parking garage. She didn't know the floor plan of the facility since she didn't attend the university, but she knew that her Power required her to be in an open space for it to work. The street was a scene of chaos, though now the chaos had died down some, thanks to the arrival of the EMS and fire-rescue. Those police who were still on duty functioned more as stop-gap EMTs, or directed the walking wounded to the ambulance stations where the EMTs had set up a kind of street clinic where they stabilized the patients enough for transport back to the Health Center. There was hardly any instance of looting, since everyone was either too much in a state of shock or too seriously wounded to engage in such acts. And those who were seriously wounded were dying at an alarming rate, simply because they were lost to the view of everyone else, buried under rubble, or covered in dust that blended with the debris. The street lamps had all gone out, having had their bulbs shattered by the concussion of the initial few explosions, and the only illumination the people on the street had came from the structural fires across the street, the moon, or what their own improved eyesight allowed them to see. It wasn't enough. The people down there needed some light, and they needed it right now.
And I've got the Power to make that happen, she thought as she opened the door to level four, the upper-most parking level that was also open to the elements. Junk littered the unlit parking area. Blackened and twisted bits of metal lay smoking on the concrete. Something that might once have been a vehicle's engine had smashed into the cargo bed of a nearby pickup truck, which was bent into two pieces with its front wheels suspended in the air. An even larger piece of debris had cleaved through the concrete floor of the parking garage about forty feet from where she stood, leaving a ragged hole and a tangle of twisted structural steel reinforcement bars in its wake. Yellow light from the emergency lamps on the level below poured through this hole and dispersed into the starlit sky. To her left she saw the moon's reflection from a solar panel that had been knocked free of its mounting in the garage's panel farm.
But above her...wide open sky, the stars, and, most importantly, the big silvery moon. This was why she had come here, to this place, slipping away from the two Cadets when they weren't looking. Her Power was best practiced in solitude, and the rooftop of the garage was devoid of any humans. The automobiles parked here were her only companions, and they were the best kind for her right now; silent, unmoving, unthinking. They would not interfere with what she did, nor could they generate distracting thoughts to interfere with her Power.
Ah, down to business, she thought as she walked out into the open space of the garage parking area to a spot she felt was appropriate, near the big mirror-like solar panel, overlooking the street, facing north. There she reached into one of the leather pouches attached to her belt and brought out a handful of pure sea salt, which she poured out in a circle around her, reciting a prayer to the Goddess in her mind that her Working bear fruit. She then reached behind her and brought the hood of her robe up over her head, allowing her moon-tinged hair to cascade out into the open air as she sat in the middle of the Circle and folder her legs one over the other. From another pouch she retrieved four quartz crystals she had earlier consecrated in a bed of the same sea salt beneath a new moon. These she aligned according to the four geomagnetic points of the compass, paying her respects to the Guardians of those Watchtowers as she placed the crystals on the Circle, now fully cast according to her wholly individual method of Working.
Then she began her Work, first clearing her mind of stray thoughts with deep breathing and focused visualization, then gathering the energies of the earth through her Circle, through the Four Points of the compass, into her silver ring-which grew warm to the touch and shimmered with Energy only those with the Sight could sense-and finally into herself.
She could feel a warm glow settle around her, a brilliant golden light that wrapped her with wings of protection as she continued her Work, gathering the brilliant lines of Power that ran through the fabric of reality and focusing them on one purpose. To create light.
She had been Practicing earlier in the morning, as was her routine to greet the rising sun of every new day, when she had felt the first tingling sensations of the Change move through her body. She had paid it no heed, instead focusing on her morning incantation designed to infuse her with a peaceful light throughout the working day, a light which would rub off on all those she dealt with, bringing to them the same good luck and sense of well-being that she carried with her. It may have sounded hokey to anyone else-golden light, feelings of well -- being, peace on earth -- but for anyone who performed the incantation in the proper manner, whether they be believer or not, they would invariably find that it did work.
She had felt the warm glow of Energy as it coursed through her very soul, cleansing it and preparing her for a new day, and she had continued to the end of her Work where she visualized drawing the Energy out from her body, compressing it into a brilliant golden sphere of light, and letting it disperse back to the earth from which it came. Only this morning she had felt something strange when she formed the ball of light... she had felt, with her physical hands, real heat coming from the open air between her cupped hands. Suddenly curious as to the sensation, she had opened her eyes a crack to find her hands Changed, and hovering in the air between her palms, as bright as the sun but a million times cooler- -but still warm enough to be almost uncomfortable -- had been the sphere of light she had visualized during her Work.
And just as with this morning she felt a sudden surge of Power well up in her bosom, a surge so powerful that she could actually feel the air around her stirring into a breeze, tugging at her loose hair and blowing it into her face. The fabric of her hood fluttered as she tensed her hands and arms and began to visualize the sphere of light emerging from her, coalescing into a tangible reality that could be manipulated.
She felt a tingling all along the insides of her hands, and she saw light begin to shine through her closed eyelids. Cold silver light. Moonlight.
The air around her sighed and she heard a scrap of metal flutter in the breeze, creaking as it did so.
Cheyla dared a quick peek at her handiwork and felt her jaw slacken. A perfect sphere of the most exquisite silvery-blue light pulsed in the air between her hands to the same rhythm as her heartbeat. The surface of the sphere shimmered like the surface of a still pond disturbed by a slight breath of wind, and beams of that perfect light danced across the pavement around her, casting ever-changing patterns across her green robe and the palms of her hands. She saw in the shattered solar panel her own reflection, a hooded figure sitting in a Circle with hands cupped around a shimmering sphere of light, and within that hood she saw that her eyes were glowing the same color as the light within the sphere.
Beautiful, but not enough to do the job I had in mind. She closed her eyes once more and offered up another prayer before casting herself deeper into her Working than she had ever done before. The energy that had been flowing through her earlier like a river now became a torrential flood, threatening to wash away everything that stood in its path, including her, the only thing that acted to control its flow and convert its raw power into something palpable on the physical plane of existence. The light before her became brighter and brighter, making her wince even though her eyes were tightly shut, and the wind howled around her in a vortex, though it did not blow away the sea salt of her Circle or her compass points as a normal wind should have. She felt the muscles of her jaw tighten and her lips compress into a fine line as her Power continued to build, picking her up from a sitting position and forcing her into a kneeling stance with her head bowed and her hands raised to the sky. Her robe whipped about her wildly in the gale, and the Circle at her feet flared to life with the same light that pulsed brighter and brighter between her hands, the surfaces of the quartz crystals alive with dancing tendrils of concentrated moonlight.
A hundred feet away from where Cheyla knelt, photosensors designed to track the progress of the sun issued their electronic commands, and twenty blank faced solar panels swiveled on their mounts to absorb the new source of illumination that had become available.
Inbound for University Drive
"Hey, check that out!" Shad called from the driver's seat, hunching over the steering wheel to get a better look at the roof of the garage complex. "What is that, a metal fire?" Elise dropped her window and stuck her head out into the humid night air, letting the wind tug at her hair. In the back of the rig with his tail running almost the full length of the floor, Eric cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyes at the intense source of illumination that was throwing shafts of light into the smoke-filled dark like an omnidirectional searchlight. "It might be," Elise said, "but I don't see any smoke or secondary fires."
There isn't any fire up there, Eric thought to himself, keeping the thought as far away from the surface as he could, lest it accidentally slip out like a stray radio broadcast and be picked up by the two EMTs in the front.
Most people were actually quite adept at receiving telepathic messages, it turned out -- even people before the Change, and SRI (Stanford Research Institute) had proven that as a scientific fact -- but the real snag came in finding people who could tell the difference between a stray thought of their own and a foreign one. These two EMTs had no trouble telling the difference between their own thoughts and his, apparently a side-effect of being in close quarters with his Power for even a brief period of time, and they had told him in no uncertain terms that they did not like him poking around in their heads, even if by accident. So Eric sat quietly in the back, keeping his mind very still, and Listening for the thoughts of other people, something he had yet to master -- he had had no idea how to do this upon getting into the ambulance-but was steadily improving upon. He'd already learned how to Hear the thoughts of those around him without being drawn into them, rather like listening with half an ear to advertisements between music blocks on his favorite radio station. It was a good thing that he had learned this trick so soon, for the amount of noise generated by the nebulous thoughts of the injured was growing in intensity the nearer they were to University Drive. Shad was unwittingly driving into a tempest of telepathic signals.
Eric was not looking forward to being a telepathic bloodhound for the EMTs. He dreaded what was in store for him so much so that his feathers were slicked against his body in anxiety...and the real bitch of it was that he was doing the right thing, that people were depending on his skills to save lives.
What if he missed one? What if the sheer number of terrified minds around him brought him to his knees and turned him into another casualty? What if his skills weren't developed enough? What if his skills were too well developed, and he ended up giving someone an aneurysm? The light show was a welcome distraction from those cheerful thoughts.
Something about that light made him look closer. Something about it seemed different, yet familiar. He closed his eyes and took hold of the silver ring dangling against his chest with a taloned hand, then opened his eyes and looked out of the window with a different kind of Sight.
The solid outline of the building remained in place, but another outline of the building was warped and twisted, skewed inward by the incredible amount of Energy that was being generated on the roof. The light source -- the color of moonlight and brilliant as the sun -- was still there, but its outer periphery was swathed in a dense halo of dark blue. Occasionally plumes of that ethereal stuff would leap out from the main body to curl lazily in the starlit sky before returning once again to the main body, casting shadows on the walls of the garage...
Eric shook his head, let go of the ring, and centered himself once more on the physical. Then he looked back up at the garage as the ambulance made its final turn before reaching University Drive. What he was seeing shouldn't have been visible to the naked eye. He could no longer see the Energy outline of the building -- and this should have been so -- but those dancing sprays of light were there for everyone to see. They licked out over the roof of the garage, a trail of blue light streaming white in its wake, and stretched out over the entire distance between the garage and the other side of University Drive. The light was so intense that it flickered off the bellies of low-level clouds, and Shad uttered an oath as he flipped down his overhead glare shield. One of those light flares flickered directly over them with an audible hiss. Elise ducked inside the ambulance and hastily rolled the window up, her face white as a sheet in the otherworldly glow.
Not much longer now, Eric thought to himself, marveling at the control of whoever was Working up on the garage roof.
Northside Parking Complex
"Goddess, let it be!" Cheyla cried out, sealing her Work and opening the floodgates to the energy her Power had amassed. She opened her hands to the sky and felt a blast of cold fire and gale-force winds blast through her, threatening to rip her robe to tatters and blow her out of the Circle. Debris whizzed about her, mere feet from her closed eyes, and she trembled as something snicked through a loose bit of fabric on her robe.
She had never felt fear when Working; it had always been a pleasurable experience. But now she was afraid. Afraid of what she had unleashed, of what it could do to her if she couldn't control it. What seemed like the light of a thousand suns burned through her eyelids and made her grimace as the wind snarled her ordinarily straight hair into a tangled, dust-saturated mess. She took a breath and was rewarded with a nosefull of fine powder, and she covered her face to cough, falling onto her side and assuming a fetal position within her suddenly too-small Circle, all the while Hell itself seemed to be breaking out around her. Something big and metallic scraped past her and crashed against something else that shattered and tinkled. Another sound from behind her, creaking metal, then a popping sound, and a shadow passed directly over her. Cheyla cried out in terror and pulled her hood over her face to protect against the tiny fragments that sang around her in a tight vortex of harsh light and sound. Opening one eye just a crack she peered out of one of the many holes that now decorated her hood and found herself looking straight up the eye of a tornado of light. It was the most beautiful-and terrifying-thing she had ever seen, and words couldn't begin to describe it.
The flash was seen as far away as Houston, where it lit up the city skyline in an eerie silver-blue, and it registered on the sensitive optics of overhead weather satellites and a single KH-11D reconnaissance bird that had been tasked with observing the College Station area for some unknown reason. The disturbance began at almost ground level and rocketed up to an altitude of over eighty thousand feet, where for some inexplicable reason it stopped...and stayed. Observers from NOAA and the NSSL, not to mention NASA and the NRO, were routed from their beds to take a look at the anomalous light source, which had the initial identification of "high intensity, long duration ball lightning." But meteorologists quickly discarded this hypothesis.
Then, when no other hypothesis seemed to fit, they embraced it again, adding that it was "probably an energetic side effect of the Change." For those on University Drive, though, it was a godsend. It provided them with light enough for them to tend to the survivors, whereas before they had to rely on flashlights or their own enhanced night vision. Local news stations had just arrived on the scene, and their cameras had recorded much of the bridge-laying efforts, but their lenses soon turned to the strange illumination issuing forth from the top of the parking complex. A vortex of bluish light had formed at the top of the Northside garage, grown brighter and brighter as it collapsed in upon itself, sucking debris into its core-including a large solar panel that had earlier been knocked free by the gas explosion and the aft portion of a pickup truck-and then shot into the sky like a rocket, the shell of the twister spreading out in an ever expanding low altitude shockwave of light. The solar panel and chunk of pickup truck were never seen again.
The police chief, who had his back turned to the light to protect his eyes, saw his shadow that had been cast harshly against the ground, with edges as crisply defined as a knife's edge, grow shorter and shorter as the source of light increased in altitude.
Eric looked up to the new, temporary sun that was hovering above College Station and held his hand against the glare. A solid layer of high-altitude cirrus clouds, arrayed with almost geometric precision, caught and diffused the concentrated moonlight, lighting up the heavens with that preternatural glow. The stars on the horizon were still visible, and the moon hung in the sky with its pockmarked and battered face gazing blankly down on them, totally outclassed by this photonic upstart. An aircraft, flying high in the stratosphere, became a brilliant silver speck trailing a long white tail of condensation.
"My God," Shad breathed. "What was that?"
"Either a lightning bug from hell, or someone using their Power." Eric was quiet for a moment.
"The Power of Illumination."
Basement Level 2: Network Operations
"Biomass gasifiers are primed and set," Tratt reported from his seat at the control console while his eyes saw something other than blank cinderblock walls. "How're you all doing on the overflows?"
"We're down to the last one," one of the network team reported. "And that one is almost.... There! We're ready when you are."
A thought propelled him from an exterior view of the systems of the bioreactor complex to a view of the systems governing the gas turbine power plant that took its fuel from the bioreactor's gasifier. The power plant, located on Southside, was a dull looking building, devoid of any remarkable features, including windows. Most of the student body never paid it any attention, didn't care what was inside it, and knew only that it always made a quiet hissing noise. But inside this building, sitting within a smaller steel enclosure, resting in a cradle made of steel and concrete and wrapped snugly by layer upon layer of ductwork, was the heart of the building, an MS7001-H Advanced Gas Turbine. Developed by the General Electric company, this gas turbine generated 400 megawatts of power at 60 Hertz, and when taking its fuel from the bioreactor complex could power the entire Texas A&M campus indefinitely-well, so long as there was waste water running through the bioreactor. Known as "the machine" by the people who worked around it, the gas turbine was in excess of fourteen feet in diameter, was as long as a Greyhound bus, and was among the most fuel efficient devices ever forged by human hands.
Tratt sent a probing thought through the diagnostic subroutine, checking all the major systems of the plant, and was pleased to see that everything was in working order, despite the plant workers abandoning their posts earlier in the day. And since everything was in working order, coupled with the fact that the control system for the entire plant was computerized and linked into the network, it meant that Tratt had only to reach inside and "flick the switch," so to speak.
"Ready on the gasifiers," Tratt told them. "I'm throwing the switch... now!" Points along the decision tree for power plant start-up blinked from red to green in an orderly fashion as all the various plant systems engaged automatically. Fuel pressurization and cleaning flicked from red to green as natural gas from the bioreactor flowed into the power plant's fuel system. Fire suppression systems, red to green, were charged and set, temperature monitors scanning for any thermal spikes within the turbine enclosure that would indicate a fire. Starting means, red...green, a huge gasoline engine that would begin spinning the turbine's main rotor. Catalytic combustors slid into place. The heat recovery steam generator began to pump water through its pipes. The rotor lock to the enhanced steam turbine was released, and the electromagnetic bearings powered up, causing the rotor to lift into the air on a cushion of magnetic energy. Once the starting means had spun the turbine up to its lowest operating range, fuel began to flow through the gas lines surrounding the turbine casing, and was then channeled into the catalytic combustors, where it came in contact with a fine screen of highly reactive material that instantly caused complete chemical combustion.
"Come on... come on. That's right," Tratt murmured as he watched the turbine's RPM increase from dangerously low levels to its operational range. "Yes! Yes!"
Northside Parking Complex
There was a mob of reporters and cameramen hovering outside the main exit of the parking garage, just waiting for someone to emerge from the complex so they could bombard him or her with questions. The only person that could possibly come out of the garage was also the only person who could have been responsible for the Pulitzer Prize-winning light show, and Cheyla realized this as she was threading her way through the parked cars in the darkened first level. As a result of her handiwork outside, their eyes had become accustomed to the brightness, so they couldn't see her standing there, between a Chevy and a Nissan, watching them.
Oh, brother. If there's one thing I don't want to do now, it's answer questions! But fortunately Fate had conspired in Cheyla's favor and given her a way out that the media (not familiar with the buildings on campus) did not know existed. She did a prompt about-face and trotted across the cold concrete floor to the door leading into the machine room, built inconspicuously into the far corner of the garage, opened the door (the electric locks were open, since there was no power) and let herself in, closing the door as quietly as possible behind her. Once inside she stood there listening to her own breathing while her eyes adjusted to the absence of light.
The room was about fifteen feet square and stank of engine oil, hot metal, mold, and chemicals. A squat shape to her right resolved itself to be one of the four-wheeled maintenance shuttles, and to her left she felt the brooding presence of high-voltage machinery and a maze of pipes that ran from floor to ceiling.
Metal shelving lined the walls, lined with containers and boxes carrying God only knew what. A crude table made of wood boxes, topped with a sheet of metal, stood away from the wall on her right, and three folding metal chairs were carelessly arrayed around it. A bare light bulb was suspended above the improvised table. She smelled coffee... cold coffee... and something sweet. Doughnuts? A newspaper lay scattered on the floor, probably dropped by someone when the Change had first hit. In fact this whole room looked to have been abandoned by everyone in it at the very moment of the Change, a time capsule of chaos.
Just then the light bulb flickered a dull orange, and she heard an electric buzz from the machinery.
The door behind her emitted an audible click as the electromagnetic locks engaged. Then the bulb flickered again, this time brighter, and finally flared to life at the same time the machinery to her left burst to clattering life with a loud squeal, making her jump in surprise. The ceiling, she saw now, was lined with pipes, all marked with colored bands denoting what purpose they served. The walls were an institutional green, and darker green mold colonized the shadowy corners and recesses of the room. A half-finished box of glazed doughnuts sat on the table alongside two ancient coffee mugs. And built into the far wall of the room was the exit, right next to the sliding vehicle door.
Cheyla moved quickly across the room and gently applied pressure to the bar that operated the latch on the door. It clicked and she pushed the door open ever so slightly, peeking outside to make sure there were no cameras outside. Seeing none she opened the door further and poked her head out, checking left and right.
The maintenance door dumped her out behind the Northside garage, onto a street that had vaporous steam drifting out through the sewer grates. Only a few street lamps were lit on this back street- actually more of an alleyway-and there were no people anywhere near to see how this lone hooded figure, clad in a green robe, stole away into the night like a thief. The figure was so focused on not being seen that it didn't notice how the lights of the nearby buildings were burning brightly, that power had been restored.
She kept her hood up to conceal her features until she was well clear of the garage before she even considered relaxing her guard and looking back. It was when she had reached the post office that she lowered her perforated hood and looked around her.
The street was a ruin, but at least now she could see real progress was being made. First aid stations had been set up to treat critically injured patients, and she could see a Life Flight helicopter sitting on the ground down the street with its rotors turning, a group of paramedics loading in someone on a stretcher. Rescuers had cut ladders off of fire engines and used them as bridges... and a flow of people were coming across to this side of the street, some walking on their own, some requiring assistance, and some on stretchers. Everything was lit up almost as bright as day, and would stay that way for several hours before the effect of her Power wore off.
And during that time, I can still make myself useful. Cheyla strode out onto the street and introduced herself to the nearest person of rank, a fireman with a narrow scaly face, broad triangular plates protruding from his back, and a tail tipped with spikes.
She quickly found herself armed with a general-purpose fire extinguisher and given the mission of putting out small fires with a group of other people, similarly armed, under the watchful eye of another fireman.
Beutel Health Center
"Tube's in! Bag 'em."
Pryce stood back as a nurse attached an ambu-bag to the endotracheal tube and began manual respiration on the patient, a Low-D gopher morph male, age 25, with second and third degree burns over chest, arms and left leg. Shrapnel wounds in upper right quadrant, one perforating-"through-and- through"-to the upper right arm. Saline started and ten milligrams morphine given in the field before transport. Handheld x-ray showed a fractured tib-fib. Two units O-neg were in. The patient was swathed in burn packs, and part of the skin on his left leg had sloughed off during rescue operations to get him out of his burning car. One of the rescuers was being treated for first degree burns to his talons and smoke inhalation-a medical situation far more serious for avians than for mammals because of their complicated breathing cycle. Whereas terrestrial mammals had a simple suck-in/blow-out process to their breathing, avians had a highly developed system of air sacs and passageways that kept the lungs constantly oxygenated in a four- step breathing cycle. Atmospheric toxins like smoke or fuel vapors could put a bird-morph into respiratory distress when it would only cause minor irritation in a mammal or a reptile. As a result medical procedures had to be adjusted to accommodate patients of different morph types, as well as degrees of shift.
Physiology had been turned on its ear this morning, and now it was time to sink or swim.
But, by God, we're saving more lives now than when we first started! His beeper went off-"It's mine," he reported-and he checked the number and digital message on the flat LCD screen, leaving smears of sticky blood across the Motorola logo. "Doctors, do you mind if I..."
"No, we've got it. Good intubation, Eddie. Must've been a real bugger getting the laryngoscope past those eye teeth."
Pryce backed away from the table with his hands held up in the air, taking care not to bump into anything or anyone as he turned around and shouldered the swinging double doors to the trauma room open. He stripped off the bloodstained set of latex gloves, pulled off the lightweight tan smock, and removed his facemask with attached visor panel. All this he dumped into a nearby bin as he walked over to the doctor's lounge, which he found to be empty.
"Hello? Anyone asleep in here?"
It couldn't hurt to be absolutely sure the room was empty.
No one answered, so Pryce locked the door behind him before he fished out his flip-open phone and dialed the number.
The phone beeped once as the encryption systems shook hands with one another, and he heard the other end pick up.
"Pryce here. What's the status of the Nest?"
"All quiet, sir. No signs of anyone being able to get into or out of the place. We're just off the perimeter of the facility, but we can't see any movement inside with our synthetic aperture radar or biomagnetic sensors. All the windows are covered with blast deflectors...probably take linear shaped charges to cut through them, but we still don't know what's inside. We've already detained ground security personnel, but they didn't have much in the way of really useful information; just that everything went nuts at oh-seven-hundred this morning and the place squeezed shut so tight you couldn't fit a greased BB in through the door. Auxiliary power is functional, and if what Lieutenant Tratt reports is true, then we've got a little time to work with. Restoring main power, though, will be a problem."
"Explain," the gyrfalcon ordered, parting the blinds covering one of the windows with a talon and looking outside as yet another ambulance pulled into the bay. Where'd all that light come from? Is there some aircraft dropping parachute flares out there?
"The gas line explosion ran all the way down that one major street, University Avenue or whatever it's called. The blast also traveled under part of Wellborn Road before the valves automatically shut off to contain the rupture. Thing is, when that line blew, it also took out the main power lines running from your side of campus to the C-Nest side. The lines are totally gone, sir. Not just blown away, but blown away and melted. There's no way we could put a patch on the line, even if we cut away the melted section to get at good cabling. Not in the seventy-some hours we have left. We'd have to have the patch custom made...a week, minimum."
Pryce cursed. "What about other feeds to the building?"
"No good, sir. The main line was the only power feed to this side of campus. Even though we've got plenty of auxiliary lines going to the building, the main line is still down. Seems pretty goddam stupid not to have parallel mains, but, well, there it is."
"So you're telling me that we've got a little under seventy-two hours to get inside the CNST, secure it, establish the integrity of the Infectious Agent Research Lab, and evacuate anyone contaminated along with the actual Spiral devices? After that the reserve generators run out of fuel and we lose containment."
"Yes, sir. It looks that way."
As he was oft to do in pressure situations, Pryce looked up to the ceiling and closed his eyes to concentrate. They didn't have time enough to establish a makeshift link onto the main power grid.
Reserve power would exhaust its fuel supply in less than seventy-two hours, and Tratt had already attempted to gain access to the Nest's network without success. No access to the network meant that Tratt couldn't shunt auxiliary power from adjacent buildings into the CNST, much the way he'd pulled that white rabbit out of his hat with the Health Center. Doing the power line two-step required a willing partner, in this case the C-Nest's computer network. If the other network were blind to the outside world it wouldn't matter if he had the sum total of all the power stations on the planet, it just wouldn't know to latch on.
"Not enough time," the gyrfalcon said flatly, pulling up a nearby stool and seating himself. He sighed and flexed his hind talons. And then, like a bolt from the blue, inspiration struck. "Wait a minute. Maybe we're going about this the wrong way."
"Maybe what we need to do is get inside first, as soon as possible, and gain access to the network from there. Then we could connect to the outside and redirect power to the Nest, buying us... how long would you hazard?"
The other side was quiet for a moment. "I don't know, sir. All that hinges upon the Nest's network even functioning. The brains of the building were almost entirely those quantum types, and all those corked off almost right at oh-seven-hundred for whoever knows why. Sir, with all due respect, I think we should consider placing assets inside only as a last resort."
Pryce held his head in one hand, elbow propped on a knee. "You know where that leaves us."
"Yes, sir. But it beats the alternative." "Very well. Keep watch on the perimeter, and look for any possible entrance points. Vents, drain pipes, airlocks, poorly shielded windows, I don't care. Just find them. We've still got to get a probe inside to check the internal environment, and from there we can discuss our options."
"Done, sir. Out." And the line went dead.
Pryce pushed the SEND button, severing the connection on his end. Then he dialed another number from memory. The phone gave its usual encryption synchronization beeps, and then a synthesized female voice gave him instructions.
"Voiceprint identification, Edward Pryce." He waited a moment, sitting up straighter, as if he were actually in the office, sitting before the dark polished wood desk. The man sitting behind it would have had close-cropped graying hair, a severely angular face with just a slit of a mouth and perfect white teeth, ice blue eyes, and a voice that could chill the blood if so desired. His hands bore many scars and had a hardness to them that spoke of great strength, hands that could-and had-broken necks in the past. The man rarely smiled when receiving a briefing. Of course after the Change he would look different... yet Pryce knew deep in his bones that his superior undoubtedly had assumed the form of something intimidating as hell. Anything less would have violated the laws of the Universe. The man was strict but fair, as he had always been for the entire time Pryce had served under him.
"How is your work progressing, Pryce?" The name of this man was indelibly etched onto each and every Spiral device, as sure as the names of the scientists who had created the Plague in the first place.
It had been this man who had almost single-handedly pushed the Spiral Project forward during the seventies and eighties, keeping it safely out of the light, running a black budget with a genius any accountant would have found appalling. This man had been behind the reins of several operations that ended in the recovery of untargeted batches of Plague from Central European terrorists -- adding to the batches already in stasis around the country. The terrorists, of course, had been neutralized. All of them.
The President did not deal directly with this man; no one in the executive branch did.
No one would ever know his name, nor would his face make it into the history books. Many of his actions, though, would be recorded in the history books, but only after he was dead.
This suited the man on the other end of the phone perfectly well.
There were too many wounded and not enough ambulances. Each ambulance could carry two stretchers -- those able had to walk a quarter mile to the Health Center -- and there were five ambulances, each one running a pattern of coming in to scoop up another pair of patients, then racing back to the already overcrowded Health Center, offloading, then coming back again. Each cycle took almost ten minutes.
That Cadet with the 350 was certainly doing a helluva job, packing in five, sometimes even six stretchers in the back of that green monster of his, and then racing back to the Health Center with the other ambulances. But the rescuers coming back from the other side of the trench were bringing in more people on stretchers than the ambulances and the 350 could take out. Life Flight had arrived, and they were ferrying out double-loads of the most critically injured patients to other medical facilities, but their cycle time was far too slow, even flying at top speed. The number of wounded just kept piling up... and these people needed medical attention.
And recently the fire chief noticed that there were a lot more wounded coming in than before, mostly due to the feathered dinosaur that was running around out there, dragging behind it like some huge, excited dog straining against a leash, a pair of EMTs, a German shepherd-morph and a relatively normal looking woman. The dinosaur-looked like one of those veloci-whatevers from his son's coloring books- raced from one pile of rubble to another, narrow snout pointing like a reptilian hunting dog into some part of a pile. And then it would start digging, its slender, powerful forelimbs tossing chunks of concrete over its shoulder... and keep on digging... and then stand back as the two EMTs raced in with a C-spine collar and backboard, removing a few moments later a dust-covered survivor. Another person on a stretcher.
The dinosaur had been at this for a while now, and it showed signs of tiring, for it wobbled visibly on its feet with its sides heaving and head held low. But the damn thing just kept on going and going, like an Energizer Bunny from Jurassic Park.
Another wreck of a car or pile of rubble. Another warm body.
It's great that he... she... whatever... can do this. But, Jesus, we can't move these people out of here fast enough! We need a miracle down here, God! His radio crackled, a slow Southern drawl coming through. "...anyone on this channel, please come in, over."
He lifted the radio to his mouth. "This is Captain Miller of the College Station Fire Department. Who am I speaking to, over?"
"This is Chief Warrant Officer Sean McCain of the One One Airborne Assault Regiment, handle Darkhorse Two-Six. We're a flight of four Ospreys out of Ellington AFB on the way to Conroe. How can we help, over?"
The fire chief held the radio closer to his ear. Did he hear that correctly? "Say again, Darkhorse Two-Six. Did you say you were a flight of Ospreys, over?"
"Ah, roger that, Cap'n. A flight of four Charlie Victor Twenty-two Bravoes, to be precise. Fully fueled and mission capable. Give us the word, and we're there in two zero, over."
"Chief McCain, the word is given! Get your asses down here; we got a whole pile of wounded for you to evacuate, over."
"Roger that, Cap'n. We are en route. Could you give us the GPS coordinates of the LZ, over?"
"We've established two LZs, the first one is larger and located on our side of the trench. Approach blocked on the south and west by structures; it's coordinates are..." the fire chief felt around inside one of his pockets and brought out a crumpled scrap of paper with numbers scrawled across it. He activated his radio and recited the coordinates. "The second LZ is smaller, and is on the other side of the trench. Approach from the north is blocked by structures; coordinates are..." he recited another set of numbers.
A pause as the pilot entered in the coordinates to his flight computer, then, "Ah, roger that, Cap'n. Your coordinates put us eighteen miles out. Have the patients ready to go when we touch down so we can scoop and run. The other ships will orbit the LZ, then come in one at a time when we pull pitch. We can carry twelve litters apiece, over."
"Great, Chief! We'll put the light on for you, over." He heard laughter over the radio.
"Negative, Cap'n. We have plenty of light to fly by. How 'bout popping flares to establish LZ borders, over?"
"You'll have them, Chief. Out."
His radio clicked twice, an old aviator's trick signaling that the message was understood without having to say anything.
The fire chief looked up to the sky and smiled, thinking that maybe his prayers really had been heard.
"Thank you," he whispered.
260 Miles Overhead The satellite looked like a large tin can, bristling with gossamer-thin relay antennae and two huge parabolic radio intercept dishes that looked to be made of spun gold. It was the size of a locomotive and had been boosted into orbit by one of the largest military launch vehicles available. The twin digital cameras, one located at either end of the bird, gave its operators the capability of generating limited real time three-dimensional images with a sharp enough resolution that they could read newspaper articles from 260 miles up. Working in tandem two Keyhole satellites cued on the same target could generate an even better 3D reconstruction, real enough to allow its operators to don virtual reality headgear and stand next to the subject as an electronic ghost. Atmospheric distortion and thermal effects of the intense heat and cold of space near the lens were digitally filtered out so quickly that the operators wouldn't notice any loss in image quality on the receiving end. Clouds meant nothing to the KH-11D, for it was also equipped with radar mapping equipment and infrared detectors. All radio transmissions that drifted up to the satellite were collected by the monstrous twin parabolics, amplified, encrypted, then burst transmitted across a thousand different frequencies down to Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency, where analysts would put on their robes and caps and perform their magic. If two subjects in China had a conversation over a cellular phone, and there was a KH-11D up and about, a real time translation, word for word as it was spoken, would appear at someone's console.
The Satellite Operations Control Room resembled a movie theater. Soundproof walls painted dark gray, a forest green ceiling, and thick carpeting. No windows, except for the little one built into the door...which someone always taped over because of the glare coming in from the outside reflecting off the monitors. Six huge flat panel screens dominated the front wall, and every controller's station had its own monitor. The consoles were sleek and modern in their design, as were the chairs -- even if they were a great deal less comfortable now than they had been. Still, the coffee was prepared by the best, healthful snacks were plentiful, and they even had cable television for those incredibly rare times when the spooks didn't have anyone to watch on the Big Screen.
Not that any of the spooks in the SOCR were interested in cable. Hell no, not now. Not when they had something far better than cable playing itself out on the six big monitors right before their eyes: reality. This shift of spooks had been given the order from On High to park an observation window over some college town in the middle of Nowheresville, Texas. So that was what they did; tasking any of their birds passing over that area of the planet to turn their cameras on and send down real time imagery of the place. Once one satellite was out of range another would just be coming on target, and the spooks would handle the delicate operation of hopping from the first satellite over to the next one. The spooks had watched the initial shock of the Change roll through the town like a tide, then recede. Sometime during the afternoon (it was difficult to tell time in this cavern) they saw on sixty-meter resolution a long dark line of people standing outside a centrally located building with ambulances parked outside. They'd watched as bird-morphs ran landing patterns on the building's roof... and they'd seen four aircraft fly over, all but one of them leaving behind bright heat trails on the infrared sensors. The spooks had watched a mob form along a major east-west road, causing the light traffic on the road to come almost to a complete stop.
And they had seen the pile of clothing-zoomed in to two-meter resolution on the subjects immediately surrounding the pile-and the metallic flash of light from something held in a blue rabbit- morph female's hand. A lighter.
Gasps from the spooks, and a few shouted oaths. The chaos that ensued was recorded for the record -- God, no, it would never be released to the public -- and the spooks had watched every minute of it, not moving from their chairs, many of them trying to keep a tight grip on their emotions. An angry yellow line traced itself along the length of the main road and down part of another. Infrared showed glowing heat trails of debris arcing through the air, impacting against buildings, cars, sometimes people. Infrared also showed them the grisly image of warm bodies... some of them still moving, leaving behind a them a trail of glowing warmth as they tried to crawl to safety. One figure, obscured by smoke on the visual sensors but plainly visible on the infrared, was missing its legs from the waist down and part of an arm, but was still trying to drag itself across the dimly glowing pavement with its one good arm. And then the figure stopped, and a large pool of glowing heat radiated out from where it lay, growing cooler and dimmer by the moment. But just when things seemed to be at their worst, bridges were laid (a three-dimensional reconstruction of the first team to lay a bridge across the trench would show a female tiger-morph in Kevlar body armor leading their efforts), and most recently that strange flash of light that had originated on top of a vehicle parking complex, focused right where a woman was sitting cross-legged in a circle of white powdery material. And then the lights to the buildings had come back on.
The spooks had seen the number of wounded piling up and they had placed a few discrete calls to get the ball rolling to help save these people. They weren't supposed to get directly involved, but this shift had been at the helm for too long, and each analyst had his or her favorite subject now, and they would track them from place to place. Ordering the four-ship flight of CV-22Bs into the area had been their doing, and Angelica Botnick, a medium degree mouse-morph who had chosen the rat-morph fireman as her favorite subject, smiled.
The man's last name, stenciled across the back of his black flameproof jacket, was Miller. And he was staring at her through the screen, holding a radio in his right hand.
Pixels moved, white turning to black and shades of gray, the man's mouth moving. "You're welcome," she replied, touching the image on the cold screen with a long nail.
A brilliant pinprick of heat blossomed at one corner of the LZ the rescuers had hastily cleared. Then another...and another, and finally the fourth, marking out the boundaries of the landing zone. Moments later another blossoming of heat signatures established the location of a second LZ.
Basement Level 2: Network Operations
Tratt called it "the Zone."
The Zone was a state of mind he experienced every so often after working for so long on a particular subject, mechanics for instance, that it was the only thing he could think about, and time had no meaning. Everything he saw became an exercise in the subject... a construction crane, a bridge, the exposed shock absorbers of a motorcycle. He could have walked off of a cliff and not known about it until the sudden deceleration at the bottom, his mind would be so preoccupied with the one subject he had locked himself into. To him the Zone represented the apex of concentrated thought, a singularity of purpose so perfect, so simple, that he could lose himself in it for days, switching from one form of focus to another, and not come back out -- a very handy ability when it came to final exams.
And he was firmly ensconced in the Zone now, his mind completely focused on the objectives set out for him by his new superiors. The rivers of data were flowing freely throughout the network finally, one system talking to another, and he was Zoned in on finding the reason behind the failure of the quantum flux processors earlier in the day. He'd already checked the processor logs until the point when everything spiked and went dead, had checked and rechecked the machine language code (which his Power allowed him to understand naturally) controlling the network to see if there had been a malfunction, and had even gone so far as to look at the security tape logs for all the cameras that watched over the QFP mainframes, that maybe there had been an act of sabotage committed. No luck on any count. The processor logs were normal up until that spike, the code was flawless (of course, since it had been written by a QFP-based computer), and there was nothing on the security recordings. The only anomalous bit of evidence he had was that damned spike on the processor log.
But what does it mean? And what the hell is that that keeps squeezing my wrist?! It had started off as a mild presence, like he was wearing a bracelet or a loose watch. Then as he had become more and more entrenched in the Zone and his skill in using his Power increased, the bracelet had begun to tighten until it was finally at the point of hurting. John knew his wristwatch wasn't causing the feeling; it was on the wrong wrist. No, this was something else, something inside the machine with him. A digital boa constrictor bent on suffocating his arm to death.
Well, let's take a look at you, then. John held his hands up in the electronic netherworld of the network and concentrated on seeing what this little fellow that seemed to have taken such a liking to his wrist looked like. At first he saw nothing, but as time wore on a faint red haze began to form around his right wrist, coalescing finally into a solid form. It wasn't a bracelet. It was a monstrous steel shackle, covered in rust, with an equally monstrous and rusted chain that was wrapped tightly about his arm. The chain was what was doing the squeezing.
Ah, there you are. John thought as he reached down and took hold of the last link to begin loosening the chain. Little bastard. No, wait, something was wrong. The chain remained steadfastly wrapped around his arm. It wasn't loosening at all. If anything, it was getting tighter!
Grinding his beak in frustration he pulled harder on the chain, trying to work his thumb talon between it and the feathers of his forearm so that he could pry it loose.
Suddenly the surface of the manacle glowed a sickly red, turned to liquid, and a hunk of the stuff shot out of it like some alien blob to plaster itself to his other arm with a gelatinous sucking sound. The chain on his right arm tightened suddenly, catching his thumb and holding his arm still, while at the same time the blob of red stuff oozed down his other arm to encircle his wrist, and once that was done, it quickly became solid. Another shackle, and one that rapidly grew a flailing whip of a chain tail that lashed wildly through the air until it struck the chain of the first shackle. There it attached itself and pulled his arms together, wrenching his thumb in the wrong direction and making him yelp in pain as he twisted his thumb free.
But how could he feel pain in this digital world? The body he saw with his "eyes" was nothing more than a shell generated by his own mind to help him comprehend what was going on around him.
Nothing more than an avatar, a tool. Or was it? Maybe he felt pain physically because he believed deep down that it was his physical body in the machine? Hadn't researchers at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) been able to cause mild burns on people's hands to spontaneously appear by suggesting to them under hypnosis that they were holding a hot piece of metal, when all they were really holding was a pencil? So maybe this was just a case of--
The manacles tightened again, and more chains sprouted from the now-fused pieces of steel, writhing and thrashing around him like malevolent snakes.
What the hell is this shit?! Is this a virus or something? "Hey!" he called out, hoping that the words made it out of his mouth in the real world. "Get me out of here! There's something--"
One of those chains wrapped noisily around his beak, clamping it shut with a painful snap and making him grunt in surprise and dismay. He shook his head, trying to wriggle free, but the more he struggled the more it pulled his head closer to the evil restraints that bound his hands and arms so tightly together. The concept of being strangled to death wouldn't have appealed to him under any conditions, but now after the Change, the whole idea of being restrained in his freedom, of being kept in a close, tight, dark place, was a terrifying thought. The manacles made it even worse because he could see what was about to happen, and yet he was utterly powerless to stop them. This drove him into a frenzy of kicking and flapping of his massive wings, driven by pure animal instinct to escape this metallic horror that was slowly but surely ensnaring him like an anemone.
Oh, God. No!
A chain spurted out from the writhing mass and twirled around one of his extended wings, then another, catching his other wing. Then the manacle exploded into a flurry of activity, and Tratt felt hundreds of chains wrapping him in a steel cocoon. His eyes were wide as he felt them squeezing around his chest, forcing the breath out of his lungs, kept squeezing, crushing him. I don't want to go like this! his mind screamed as the world around him exploded into light, the data constructs disappeared, and he felt himself somehow grow smaller, more compact.
In the blink of an eye he was falling through a tunnel of cyber blue static, plummeting down out of the computer network, still balled up into a semi-fetal position inside the mass of chains, but feeling these loosening the further he fell from the simulacrum. He fell through a windless world, hearing nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the diminishing buzz of data from above him. The tunnel swerved left, then right, and abruptly stopped with a wall of blinding white light. Tratt didn't even have time enough to wonder if maybe this was the border leading to the afterlife, that maybe those chains really had crushed the life out of his body, real or not, back in the network. He closed his eyes just before colliding with the wall of light...
And burst into the real world, convulsing in the chair behind the control station, gasping for air like a man nearly drowned. The tech was there, shaking him by the shoulders.
"Lieutenant! Snap out of it, sir!" he shouted at the bleary-eyed raptor, then ducked away before a wing could smack him in the head. "Sir! You're fine! You were fighting the regulator and you panicked." The eagle's beak moved, trying to say something, but nothing came out short of a hissing sound.
One of his hands moved, reaching for the tech and finding part of his lab coat, and suddenly Bill found himself muzzle to beak with the eagle, staring into a set of blazing yellow eyes.
"Get. This. Thing. Off. Of. Me!" the eagle hissed each word.
The tech nodded dumbly and disconnected the in-Sense from the regulator box and removed the SQUID headgear. He helped the eagle into an upright position, then pulled the other's thin, scaly legs over the side of the chair so Tratt could stand up, which he did, slowly and shakily. His feathers were a mess, yet when he tried to smooth them into place he found the task nearly impossible, for his coordination had been completely thrown off by his time in the weightless cybervironment of the machine. But as the minutes ticked by his coordination began to return, and he no longer behaved like a puppet with its strings tangled together.
Folding his massive wings across his back the lieutenant gazed at the status display monitors of the control station. "I've still got... still got three items left," he said slowly, taking note at how slow and clumsy his physical body felt in comparison to the digital body he occupied in the machine.
"Those, I think, can wait, sir," Bill told him as he scanned Tratt with a hand held medical device.
"Your blood pressure is still way down. That's one of the reasons the regulator had to restrain your 'mancing."
"You mean the chains?"
"You perceived them as chains, but you were never meant to interact with the regulator, which you did. Bad design, really. The more you interacted with the regulator, the more it restrained you- adding more chains -- and the more you fought against it."
"Damned thing nearly killed me!"
"Bad design, but it actually saved you." The eagle, still feeling more than a bit disconnected from reality, turned and glared at the tech.
"How could you call what it did to me 'saving' me?"
"Your Power allows you to interact on a very intimate level with devices that use logic gates, such as computers. You can do things that most programmers would sell their souls to be able to do... but there's a catch. The further into a machine you go, the less of yourself there is in your body. If you were to completely project into a machine..."
"Hmm. There wouldn't be anything left of me in my body. But would I then exist inside the machine?"
"I don't know. No one knows. That's the reason we installed the regulator; to keep a little of you still inside your body, just in case."
A wave of dizziness washed over Tratt, and his vision narrowed alarmingly as exhaustion came out of the dark and wrapped its mind-numbing cloak around him. He swayed on his feet and nearly collapsed, only catching himself at the last instant.
"I th-think a lot of me is still inside the computer, then." For some reason he found this idea amusing, and he laughed weakly. The tech looked at him with concern and moved over to the eagle's side, removed a penlight, and checked the pupils of Tratt's eyes, then checked his pulse with two fingers on the wrist.
"Okay, Lieutenant," Bill said soothingly "we're just going to go upstairs for a little while and get you a place to sleep so you can rest up. You're not doing any more 'mancing in the immediate future."
"I'm tired... I'm... really tired," the eagle said dreamily as Bill positioned himself under one of the eagle's arms and led him out of the control room, down the tunnel, and to the waiting elevator. Tratt's head lolled to one side and his nictitating membranes slid lazily across his eyes. Bill's speaking seemed to be just a distant mumbling as he felt himself floating in slow motion toward the waiting elevator.
Tratt didn't remember ever reaching the elevator.
"Cheese-n-rice, what a mess!"
This observation, unusual expletive and all, came from the right seat of the Osprey's cockpit, where a man with the nervously twitching nose of a jackrabbit was hunched forward, peering out of the windscreen and surveying the damage. His name was Scott Busey, but everyone called him "Greyhound" because he was an absolute terror, a runaway bus, at squadron football games. He was co-pilot and had the rank of Chief Warrant Officer, CW2 to be precise, one rank below CW3 Sean "Daddy Mack" McCain.
McCain felt his scaly snout wrinkle into a grin, sharp teeth showing. Contrary to most people in the squadron he was pleased with what he had turned into. His son was a big lizard fan, and as a result McCain had picked up a bit of knowledge about the creatures, enough at least for him to realize that he had the appearance of a large monitor lizard, probably one of those island dragons of the Pacific, though he couldn't remember the exact name for them. He was just thankful that he hadn't changed too much and developed the slow metabolism and ponderous gait of those reptiles. Instead, McCain, former member of the Special Forces, still possessed a warm-blooded metabolism, a swift stride, and had actually improved in his strength and reflexes. The Change had altered his form so that he now looked more like a creature from some fantasy novel, standing an even six foot two and weighing in at a little under two-hundred pounds -- all of this muscle and bone -- with scales so dark as to be almost black, an angular snout, a long whip-like tail, and hooked claws tipping his fingers and toes. And right now the fingers of his right hand were wrapped around the stick, with his left hand on the throttle/collective. His feet rested comfortably on the rudder pedals, occasionally making an imperceptible adjustment to the yaw of the big aircraft.
Hey, now, he saw smoke trails wafting up from a street. McCain sat more forward in his seat -- damn, even though the Osprey had a positively spacious cockpit, the seats were pure hell on a person's rear after a few hours. He squeezed the red trigger on the control stick that doubled as cyclic, activating the broadcast radio set to the squadron's frequency.
"Darkhorse Two-Six to Darkhorse Flight, I've got smoke and small fires at eleven o'clock. Flight prepare to break. Three-Five, stay on my wing. Break now, now, now."
"Roger that, Two-Six, Two-Two and One-Seven breaking to your left." The four-ship flight of Osprey was arranged in a box formation, with McCain's wing, Three-Five, behind, to the right, and slightly above him. Two-Two was further to the rear, was to the left and above, and was also the leader of the second element of the box. The fourth ship, Two-Two's wing, was directly behind McCain by about a quarter mile, but had a higher altitude.
Craning his neck to the left McCain watched as Two-Two's pilot, CW3 Loren Stewart, maneuvered her tilt-rotor Osprey, all lit up in that eerie cold light from above, into a shallow bank to the left. One-Seven followed her lead, its huge thirty-eight-foot rotor discs turning slow enough that McCain could see the individual rotor blades. The second element would orbit as McCain's bird and his wing went into the LZs first.
"Visual contact primary LZ, your twelve-thirty," Greyhound informed him from his seat, eyes shrouded by his iridescent green helmet-mounted display lenses. "I've got four heat sources at the corners, lasing the LZ now."
McCain lowered his HMD lenses and activated the pilot's TADS (Target Acquisition Designation Sight) on the left-hand side of the aircraft's chin. Nice thing about the B-model, it had dual optics systems, so both sets of eyes could be scanning different parts of the sky at the same time. They also improved the design of the refueling probe, lengthening it by a foot. McCain followed the infrared laser beam that his copilot had activated and easily found the LZ. "Got your las, LZ in sight. Three-Five, open up some, take the second LZ."
"Roger that," replied his wingman, easing back some on the throttle and widening the gap between the two aircraft. A gentle rock of the stick to the right, then back to the left, gave the other Osprey room to set up its own approach to the secondary LZ while the lead went in for the primary.
McCain eased the stick to the right and lined the Osprey up with the LZ as the two aircraft passed over Texas Avenue, the major north-south throughway that served the dual role of state highway and eastern border of the campus. Greyhound glanced out the right side of the aircraft and saw a steady stream of emergency vehicles moving to and from University, many of which had come from neighboring communities in this time of crisis. Under the TADS system Greyhound could read off individual numbers on the sides of the fire engines, see how hot their engine compartments were, and even count the number of fire-rescue personnel in the cab. Looking ahead under the thermal sight Greyhound saw that University was a burning scar across the landscape, the trench appearing as an angry, glowing white serpentine track.
Cold and dark athletic fields passed under the Osprey's belly, then a parking lot half-filled with cars. "Up nacelles forty-five."
Greyhound reached down to his touch-sensitive multi-function display (MFD) and engaged the tilt-rotor mechanism, rotating the nacelles from their current horizontal cruise position to a plus forty-five degree angle, providing them added lift as they began to slow and descend. The flight computer made the necessary adjustments to the controls so that McCain could continue flying as if he were still in cruise mode. The only clue that the nacelles had rotated came in the form of a quiet hum from the hydraulics, an increase in engine RPM, and a moderate vibration. Focused moonlight glinted from the rotor disc outside Greyhound's window. Off to their right Three-Five had adopted a similar rotor configuration, was slowing, and lowered its landing gear.
McCain flipped a switch on the throttle lever with his thumb and a low-pitched whine filled the aircraft's interior, ending in two loud bangs. He had just lowered the landing gear. "Setting approach window," Greyhound announced as he brought up a thermal image of the LZ on his left MFD, keeping the right MFD cued on flight data and artificial horizon. He activated the HMD approach window option and pressed a gloved finger on one of the signal flares, watched as the computer identified and auto-tracked the hot object, then tapped the other three corners, each time establishing a point of reference for the flight computer to use. He touched the first corner again, completing the LZ border selection, and let the computer generate the "pipe" through which McCain would fly to make a perfect landing in the LZ.
The cabin lurched violently up and down as a thermal up-draft brushed across the undersides of the CV-22B's wings, and Greyhound's hands instinctively went for the controls, hovering over them should the pilot need assistance or lose control of the aircraft. They were closing rapidly on the LZ now, and high-speed winds generated by the rising heat from the remaining trench fires began bouncing the crew around inside the ship, making life for the two sergeants in the rear of the Osprey a bit uncomfortable as they went about their business of preparing the cargo bay for stretchers.
"Kee-rist!" Greyhound sounded off as the Osprey was blasted up fifty feet, then slammed down again in a stomach-turning drop. The airframe shuddered as McCain throttled up and pulled back on the stick to put some distance between their aircraft and the roof of Wisenbaker. "Boy-howdy, we're having some fun now, huh?"
"Yeah, real..." he nosed the aircraft down and chopped throttle as another updraft tossed them up.
"This thing is bucking like a goddamn bronco!" Off to their right Three-Five wasn't faring any better Greyhound saw when he chanced a look out his side window. The other Osprey flew directly over the trench and caught a horrendous up, settling back down to proper approach altitude unsteadily and with rocking wings. "Okay, comin' up on the LZ now. Jimmy, Regina, you get ready back there, 'cuz when we come in, we're comin' in fast and hard. Don't want us to get blown into a building on a hover."
"Gotcha, Daddy Mack, we cool back here; all strapped in. Jus' give us th' word." They were at two hundred and fifty feet, passing over the roof of the cyclotron facility with its white insulation and tangle of old-style ventilation shafts and ducts at almost a hundred and fifty knots.
McCain reached down and engaged manual control on the nacelle rotate, pitch, and throttle. The LZ was right there, looking alarmingly small to the aircraft -- Christ, they'd have only about ten feet of clearance on either side of the rotors before they started trimming trees, and about twenty-five feet from nose to tail. But the approach computer gave him a hover dot, a nifty little item that located the exact center of the LZ so that he could be certain of maintaining clearance. The Osprey stooped on its landing site, closer, closer, not even slowing a bit, losing altitude, fighting against the fierce aerial winds to remain on course.
"Okay, here we go!" McCain shouted, wrenching back on the stick just as they cleared the edge of the LZ, still moving at close to one-thirty now, and simultaneously elevating the nacelles to their hover position while pouring on the throttle.
The horizon dipped below them and all they could see out the front windscreen was moonlit sky while the twin Allison T406-AD-400 turbine engines screamed in their ears. The fuselage shuddered and groaned while warning klaxons sounded out their grievances as the Osprey almost stood on its tail in an extreme braking maneuver designed to bleed off the maximum amount of airspeed in the minimum amount of space and time. Darkhorse Two-Six's huge rotor blades made thunderous claps as they bit viciously into the humid night air. Anything not secured firmly in place would have clattered along the deck to the rear of the aircraft, crewmembers included, but fortunately everyone was strapped in. McCain shoved the stick forward and increased the rotor pitch just before the tilt-rotor slammed to earth in a controlled crash that was the fast-brake landing.
BA-BA-BA-BAM! The port rotor cleaved through a nearby sapling, chopping its trunk like a twig and spraying the area with bits of wood and branches, some of which was ingested into the Allison engine on that side-and promptly spat out through the debris chute.
They were down, and in one piece.
McCain chopped the throttle to idle and tried to swallow his heart back down from its place in his throat. Next to him Greyhound's eyes were wide and his hands were clutching his knees, undoubtedly white-knuckled inside his gloves. "Down and solid. Open the ramp!"
In the rear of the ship, Regina Lee reached out with her tough leathery hand and mashed the button for RAMP DEPLOY, heard the satisfying whine of the hydraulics as the rear ramp dropped down onto the hot asphalt of the former parking lot with a firm thud. The cargo master, Sergeant James Friede, a scrappy mutt of a character (pun certainly intended) jumped out and waved for the stretcher-bearers to approach the rear of the big tilt-rotor, underneath the high tail of the Osprey, with its integrated horizontal and vertical stabilizers.
"Stay in line for the tail, dammit!" he screamed over the noise of the engines. "Don't wander from the line! Hey, fuckhead, you deaf or somethin'? Get away from the exhaust, less you wanna be a crispy critter! Yeah, yeah, come on... five... six... seven... Yeah, we got room for twelve. Fuckin-a, where's the rest of him... shit, in a bag?!"
Regina was inside, helping the stretcher-bearers place their loads in the appropriate spots and hang IV lines from bulkhead hooks. The wounds she saw were ghastly; the worst she'd ever seen on a rescue.
All of their cargo had severe burns and within only a few seconds the rear of the Osprey was filled with the stench of burned flesh-a scent powerful enough to set the crew on edge so that they had to engage the cabin ventilation system. She stopped and turned away one pair of determined rescuers who were trying to fit in a victim who was obviously dead; there was gray matter all over the stretcher. They were not on a body recovery mission. Not yet, anyway. Another pair deposited a squirming, squalling toddler, strapped into a papoose restraint and swathed in burn packs, next to a female figure totally wrapped in burn packs who kept calling out to the child, "it's alright, Devin, it's alright... Mommy's right here, hon." Across the cargo bay was a non-flighted robin-morph who was bleeding profusely through the bandages wrapped around his head, and also had pink foam dribbling out from underneath a compression bandage on his chest. A surprisingly calm cow-morph relied on a wrapping of gauze around her mid-section to keep her intestines from falling out. And a fire-blackened cheetah morph who had lost both legs clutched protectively to a bag that contained his severed limbs.
Across the trench, Three-Five, after having performed a similar tail-stand and controlled crash, was taking on its own load of precious cargo, only they had a more difficult time telling the difference between the emergent and non-emergent cases. Civilians-turned-rescuers, carrying victims on improvised stretchers, approached the Osprey from all angles, giving the cargo master fits and causing him to bellow orders like a drill instructor to the overzealous stretcher-bearers in order to keep them from turning into casualties themselves should they blunder into an exhaust flow. And even though the rotors were twenty- one feet off the ground, the cargo master wasn't about to take his chances on some morph getting spooked, jumping out of reflex, and turning himself into chopped meat.
"Awright, that's all we can take!" Friede yelled, turning back those who were at the door.
"There's gonna be another Osprey in here almost as soon as we take off, and you can load more into that bird. Got it? Good. Now move out of the LZ!" He pressed the green RAMP CLOSE button and the hydraulics whined once again. In the cockpit McCain saw that the ramp status light had gone from red to green, signaling him that the Osprey was fully loaded. Friede confirmed this a moment later as he was walking between the twin rows of litters toward his fold down crew seat, checking to make sure the passengers were all secured for the fifteen minute hop to a nearby county hospital. "Chief, we're locked down back here." He took his seat across from Sergeant Lee.
"Good to go."
"Okay, let's do it." McCain ran the throttle forward, pulled pitch, and lifted the fifty-seven foot long aircraft straight up into the air in a cloud of dust and gravel while his copilot called out the clearances from the Osprey to nearby obstacles. The small trees near the ship bent and swayed in the gale-force winds generated by the huge rotors, and rescuers shielded their patients against flying debris. To McCain's right was the six-story Blocker building, and ahead of him was the Northside garage. His left side was open, so long as he was willing to fly the treacherous air above the trench, and Three-Five was taking off to his rear.
Depressing the right rudder pedal he rotated the Osprey away from the buildings and toward the trench, then nosed the big aircraft forward to gain airspeed while at the same time he began to lower the engine nacelles into cruise configuration, a dangerous move at such a low altitude, but one he felt was necessary.
Their airspeed built quickly as they raced down the destroyed highway, low enough that spray from the water streams of the fire engines misted the windscreen, and plumes of smoke filled with burning embers curled around the fuselage. Turbulence rattled the airframe, violent enough to put them into momentary zero gravity before bringing them back down again with a bone-jarring crash, then picking them up again. The digital airspeed indicator passed one hundred and seventy-five knots at the same time they passed over the major cloverleaf between Wellborn Road and University Drive, where the blast trench abruptly ended and they encountered smooth air.
McCain eased back on the stick and the Osprey soared up into the brilliant night. He realized that he had been holding his breath for the entire flight down that chasm of hell, and he let the trapped air in his lungs out with a great sigh. He looked over at Greyhound, who merely blinked a few times, then grew a crooked smile.
"More fun than a barrel o' monkeys!"
"Uh, yeah, okay, Greyhound. Set course two-nine-zero. You have the controls."
"I have the controls."
The Osprey leveled off at three thousand feet, its Allison engines purring contentedly and great three-bladed rotors biting solidly into the air.
Beutel Health Center
The arrival of the Ospreys heralded the beginning of the end for the disaster. Running at top speed and carrying twelve stretchers each, Darkhorse Flight packed forty-eight critically injured patients out of harms way every thirty minutes, relieving the beleaguered ambulance and Life Flight personnel. Without the need to double as EMTs, firefighters could focus on what they did best: killing fires.
In a little under three hours the fire-rescue service, using only their water-cannons, had made major progress in containing all the fires that had broken out. Shortly thereafter Colonel Whiteacre, who had been coordinating over radio the rescue efforts, showed up with a crowd of other instructors, maneuvering a tracked bridge-layer they had "borrowed" from the University's military vehicle park, and set up a temporary bridge capable of supporting the weight of most vehicles, including the pumper trucks.
The bridge let the firefighters take the battle forward and soon enough the structural fires went out one by one in clouds of dirty brown-black smoke. EMS personnel were still digging out survivors with the aid of those people who could Sense the presence of others trapped in the rubble. There were a disheartening number of people who didn't make it, even though they could hear people digging to get them out. They just closed their eyes, went to sleep, and went away. Larger still, though, were the ones who came out alive. These people were rushed to the Health Center for treatment.
Acts of heroism were common during the night. Acts of heroism John Tratt felt he should be a part of.
But no, I had to burn all of my energy when I was plugged into a machine! Then I had to take a nap... Shit, I could have been out there saving people. I should be out there right now! Even as he thought this, he knew he couldn't do it, no matter how hard he tried. His body felt weak all over, like all of its vigor had been leached away by the computer, leaving only a slowly refilling shell behind. It had been only an hour before that he had come back to the real world, finding himself stretched out on a couch in some doctor's lounge with a white lab coat acting as a blanket draped over his shoulders. He'd slowly moved to a sitting position, blinking away sand and fighting a wave of dizziness, then got to his feet. A cane propped against the far wall served him well...and he carried it now as he shuffled his way like an old man through the Health Center, watching the busy comings and goings of the ambulances, the steady flow of patients that moved through the doors.
Entering an elevator he found his way down to the Emergency Ward, where the action was more intense, and so was the pungent odor of... whatever it was. A combination of burned flesh, blood, urine, disinfectant, and death. Here he saw patients on gurneys lining the walls, some of them worse off than others. They all had little colored tags, mostly yellow and a few red. A still form with a stained sheet over it was to his left, and there was a black tag on this one.
Moving closer he examined the tag, then noticed that the sheet didn't quite cover all of the body, that a little part of the shoulder was visible. He saw that the body was wearing Kevlar armor.
Oh, God. What if...?
He lifted the sheet just enough so that he could see the name stenciled onto the blood-spattered front.
Byrd... Byrd. Where have I heard that name before? Then he remembered. Jeff Byrd, Team Three. Little guy, sharp as a tack... Damn, you shouldn't have had to go like this, Jeff. Tratt let the sheet fall back into place and continued on down the hall, checking every now and then a black tag that may have been someone he knew, praying that it wasn't. He caught the eye of a low degree cougar-morph nurse wearing peach-colored scrubs, bloodstained sneakers, and a haggard look on her face. She carried a touch-pad medical chart. "Looking for an ECC member. Bolzhauser. Was he triaged?"
The nurse frowned and consulted the flat black plastic device, her face lit up by the white screen.
The nurse shook her head. "Sorry, he wasn't triaged. It may be that he's still out there."
"Maybe, but Eric should have passed through here sometime. Maybe you saw him? Looks like a skinny velociraptor with striped feathers?" Recognition flashed in her tawny eyes. "Oh, you mean Bloodhound?"
"Everyone calls him Bloodhound, because he can track down the exact spot where someone's trapped. I don't know where he is right now, but I saw him when he came in to get some lacs on his hands looked at. Must've been, oh, maybe two hours ago? Doing a hell of a job, that one is. Giving us lots of work."
"Okay... what about... Okuda. Natsuko Okuda. I know she was triaged this afternoon." The nurse paged through a few windows, looked on an alphabetized list, and nodded. "Yeah, we've got a Natsuko Okuda, brought in this morning with two cracked ribs, dehydration, treated for both. Says here she's--"
"John!" cried a voice from behind the eagle, and Tratt turned to see Nattie running over to him with arms outstretched and a joyous expression on her elongated face. She wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled him affectionately, her tail wagging furiously back and forth. He embraced her and unfurled his wings to envelop her in an avian equivalent to a hug, instinctively running his beak through her dark hair, preening it.
"Never mind," the nurse commented, returning to her duties and letting the two Coalition students stand there and hold each other.
Nattie pulled away first and held him at arms distance, brushing away a stray bit of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. "Well, look at you! Perfect for the Air Force, I'd say. What are you? No, let me guess. A hawk? No, wings are too big. An eagle, right?"
"Yup. Golden eagle. Aren't you supposed to have some broken ribs?"
"I used to have them...but someone with a Healing Power took care of that. You should see this guy work...whew!"
She returned to admiring him. "And you've even gone for the natural look, too!"
"No clothes. Yeah, it's a big thing now; why wear clothes when everything is covered anyway?"
Tratt gestured with his beak to Nattie's blood-smeared scrubs, pockets bulging with rolls of gauze and compression bandages. The handle to a pair of surgical scissors stuck out of one of the pockets on her pant legs. "But you're wearing clothes."
"I have to. It's hard to carry all of this stuff with just your hands."
"You've been working in here all during this thing?" Her face fell as memories flashed before her eyes.
"Yeah," she said, looking down. "Yeah, I been down here for the whole time. Mostly treating lacs on the greenies... that's green tags. These guys along the wall, they need a qualified nurse, not someone with basic fieldcraft. But I also got dragged into some other... stuff."
She was quiet, then shook herself out of her little trance. "Hey! Want to see the others?"
"They're here?" John asked, feeling the feathers along his neck ruffle in excitement. "They're all okay?"
"Well, apart from some cuts and bruises, yeah. Eric kind of banged his hands up, and he's out like a light right now. Come on!" She seized hold of Tratt's scaly hand and led him down the hall, his cane clicking against the floor tiles. "They're in the lounge. But make sure you're quiet... they aren't alone."
He followed her down the hall and around the corner, heading for the main doors to the ward, which had been deactivated and jammed in the open position. Warm humid air warred with the cool dry air of the air conditioning as they neared the entrance, then made a left down the same hall that John had followed to receive his battery of medical tests this morning. There was a nondescript wooden door, and Nattie opened this one ever so slowly, poking her wolf head inside. Then she gestured for Tratt to follow her in, pressing a finger to her lips as she did so.
Tratt edged around the corner as stealthily as he could and found the lounge packed. The floor was covered in thick cotton disaster blankets, and each one of these had a sleeping form atop it. Someone had opened the window to allow the humid night air to flow through the place and carry away the scents of those inside. Scents didn't matter, not now at least; the people inside were so exhausted that predator slept next to prey without so much as a nervous twitch. The floor was so crowded that the eagle couldn't safely move from his spot at the door without risking the possibility of stepping on someone, so he stayed where he was and used his superior vision to search out recognizable faces. There. On the couch. Sleeping with head craned back and mouth partway open, tongue lolling out, and snoring for all he was worth, was Wes. He was wearing a shredded and dirty pair of BDU trousers, the same John had seen him wearing earlier this morning, and a clean white T-shirt. His face, what little of it John could see from where he was standing, had a lot of small cuts and scratches, and his right ankle was wrapped in an athletic bandage.
Next to him, in fact sleeping with her head resting against the coyote's muscular shoulder, was Reeves. She still had on her Kevlar body armor, which looked like it had been on the receiving end of a whirlwind of tiny knives it was so torn up, and her face had some pretty serious cuts on it. One of them ran across her muzzle and had had the surrounding fur shaved off so that the nurses could apply adhesive stitches to it. The tiger-morph was utterly filthy, covered head to foot in gray dust.
But where's Eric? Tratt wondered.
Over here. Trying to sleep. No. Other way. Under table. John looked underneath the coffee table at the far end of the room and saw the cryptoraptor, who was looking back at him with a single, tired green eye. He had somehow managed to curl himself into a rough circle so that the tip of his feathered tail was almost touching the tip of his snout. His legs were folded awkwardly against his sides, and his forelimbs were tucked against his chest. Tratt saw that his friend's hands were wrapped with bloodstained bandages, as were his feet.
You look like hell, commented the dinosaur. Your thoughts are fuzzy.
Thanks. You don't look too much better than how I feel right now. What happened to you?
Got a little too involved. Cut up my hands pretty good trying to get a kid out of a car. I Felt his father pass on... knew I didn't have much time before kid went too. The green eye rolled back in its socket, severing the telepathic link as the dinosaur remembered the event. Then he opened his eyes again. I don't remember how I messed up my feet. Don't remember much of the last few hours. Shad said I was on autopilot until I just blacked out right in the middle of the street... Behind you.
What? Tratt turned and saw a bedraggled Pryce leaning quietly against the opposite wall in the hallway.
"Mr. Tratt, got a minute? Cadet Okuda, Nurse Gilles is looking for you."
"I'll be right there," Nattie told the spook, then gave Tratt a squeeze on the arm before she disappeared once more into the Health Center.
"Is this something we need Eric for?" the eagle asked, looking back in at the now-sleeping cryptoraptor.
"No. I was wondering if you wanted a granola bar." He pulled two foil wrapped packets out of a pocket and offered one to the eagle.
Letting the door swing shut silently, Tratt accepted the offer. "Sure. Thanks, sir."
"Let's get some air." The suggestion sounded more like an order, and Tratt followed the smaller avian out the big glass doors. The gyrfalcon hopped lightly up onto one of the metal railings that bordered either side of the ramped entranceway, and the eagle hopped up next to him-gave the other about four feet of room, since that was what his raptor instincts told him was proper etiquette. He propped the cane up next to him.
"I like this time of morning," the falcon told him. "It's quiet. Peaceful. Not many people up at this time on any ordinary day."
A stray breeze blew past and made Tratt wobble unsteadily on the thin railing, adjusting his huge plume of tail feathers, rectrices, to maintain his balance. He heard the sound of one of those tilt-rotors taking off behind him. "I've always liked sunsets, myself. Not much of a morning person, I guess." The falcon made a grunting noise as he tore open his granola bar and bit into it. "May I speak frankly, sir?"
"Mmrph!" Pryce arched his neck back and swallowed. "Go ahead."
"Why did you keep me out of the rescue effort? Why did you plug me into a computer and have me try to figure out the QFP problem, when I could have been out there helping people?"
"Lieutenant, we 'plugged you in' because that was where you could do the most good. It wasn't because we were saving you for later or some bullshit like that. Hell, son, you probably saved more lives than most of the rescuers did! You brought the power back on-line, Mr. Tratt. You and the network team did a job that would have taken hours, and did it in minutes!
"And if you don't believe me, ask any surgeon or nurse in this building. When that gas line first went up and we lost primary power, all we had were bare-bone monitoring systems and emergency lights. Christ, John, I had to assist in a cricothyroidotomy -- we slit a patient's windpipe open to establish an artificial airway -- and we had to do it using flashlights. Flashlights, for God's sake! But you got us the power, Mr. Tratt. You let the medical personnel do their job. And every person who came through these doors tonight, gushing blood and mucous and shit everywhere, every one of them that will be walking out of here sometime in the future, when it comes down to the bare wire, they all owe you their lives."
John felt his nares flush red in embarrassment. "I guess I didn't think about it that way. How many people..."
The gyrfalcon shrugged. "More than enough to last these people a lifetime. We've got physical therapy filled with the overflow. Same deal with the cafeteria. We're trying to move as many of them out as possible. Couple hundred, at least. Damn--" His beeper went off and he checked the number. "Well, I've got a call to make. Enjoy the rest of your granola bar." Pryce went back inside the Health Center, leaving Tratt perched alone at the entranceway to watch the horizon glow red with the first rays of a new day.
It was Tuesday, June 18, 1996.
One day after the Change.
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