The screen faded in to a view of the dark dripping stain on the first floor ceiling. Water from the burst pipe in the upstairs bathroom had bled through. The camera eye swung down, glided up and over other personnel and bobbed as it followed Agent Gary Takita, who dodged his head from the drops as he marched toward the woman on the sofa. The camera eye veered away to the fireplace mantle for a moment to scan framed pictures of the family that lived there. The glass covers of most had shattered. Only a few had survived the calamity. The camera eye whipped back to Agent Takita’s point of view. He was looking straight ahead at the person who was tagged as the primary witness.
A trauma officer knelt before the woman on the sofa and spoke to her in a low voice. The camera showed Agent Takita’s right hand reaching into his breast pocket as he approached the woman. There was a plate on the coffee table, which had been pushed aside to give her room. On the plate was a single powdered donut with some dark filling and a couple of small bites taken out of it. A few colored markers lay beside the plate. More had fallen to the floor. Beside the woman’s slippered foot lay a sketchpad, dog-eared pages flapping lightly in the strange breeze or cross-wind that seemed to be moving through the room. The fingers of her left hand were curled around the right shoulder of her lavender blouse. Below her shoulder hung the stump of her right arm. The medics had wrapped a bandage around it. The bandage was dry and white. The portion of sleeve above the bandage looked as if it had been sliced by a sharp scalpel, not a thread left dangling. Agent Takita pulled out his wallet and flipped it toward the woman, whose glassy eyes stared past him.
“Mrs. Casey, I’m Agent Takita.”
The trauma officer rose, turned around, and nodded to the agent. “Hey Gary.”
“How’s she doing?”
“She’s in shock. But you can try. You’ve got about ten minutes. We’re about ready to get her out of here.” The trauma officer stepped out of the camera’s view.
The woman huffed. A cloud of mist formed before her mouth.
Agent Takita knelt before her, the camera lowering to follow. “Mrs. Casey?”
She hiccuped, gazing through him. He waited a moment, giving her time to respond.
In the silence, the microphone recorded a faint phrase from the preliminary science analysis being conducted nearby, “…spiral brushed against the north and east facing windows, ascending toward the ceiling…”
Agent Takita tried again.
“Mrs. Casey, I need to ask you some questions about what happened. Will you answer my questions?”
Milky vapor streamed from her nose like dry ice when she exhaled. Her eyes appeared a strange ochre color filmed over with clear yellowish mucus.
“Where are your children, Alice? Where’s your husband? Can you look at me please? What happened?”
Her lips parted, but she didn’t say anything.
A gust blew past them, ruffling shirts and jackets. Agent Takita’s tie fluttered up. He let out a quick breath that fogged before his face. He glanced backward and the image blurred as the camera swung around to show the cracked but intact windows and the closed front door. The door burst open then and an agent wearing a dark red badge, the incident site officer, entered and scanned the room. He spotted Agent Takita and advanced toward him.
“We’ve got something outside.”
The officer led Agent Takita out to the street. Somewhere a cock started crowing. A round of barking from restless dogs responded. Light glowed from the windows of two or three houses, and triangular slits in the curtains indicated that curious neighbors were monitoring the agents.
“Here they come,” the officer said. He was looking down the west side of the street. Three people in dark clothing shuffled toward the house. One of them was carrying a white bundle.
A shriek from above ripped through the silent sky and trailed into bawling.
Agent Takita turned around and looked up at the attic. “Where is that coming from?”
The incident site officer sighed. He turned to one of his agents. “Go check it out.”
Agent Takita walked over to meet the three agents with the white bundle. Wrapped in the bundle was a little girl in checkered pajamas. She was barefoot and her whole body was shaking.
“It’s their daughter,” the agent carrying her said. “We found her hiding behind a neighbor’s trash cans.”
“Is she seizing?” Agent Takita asked, waving over a medic.
“No, she’s just cold.”
Agent Takita reached out to take the girl. He held her to his chest and asked for someone to get more blankets. Mist puffed from his nostrils. The girl gazed up at the stars. Tears filled but did not drip from her frosty gray eyes. Agent Takita carried her toward the medical van.
He caught the eye of a passing agent. “Bring the mom out here now,” he said. “She might feel like talking if she sees her daughter is all right.”
Agent Takita slid open the door to the van. There were a couple of portable heaters near the back. He set the girl down on the padded gurney and turned a heater on. He felt her feet and put some heated pads over her legs and feet. Her eyes were faraway, looking up at the sky, but unlike her mother’s, they were clear. The girl opened her mouth and her throat hitched. But when she spoke, the word she said was clear.
One of the officers assigned to secure the scene held up his hand as Tashi approached the perimeter.
“What’s your clearance?”
“DarkOrange,” she said, flashing her badge and identification.
“Welcome to the crime scene, Agent.” The officer waved her forward and she activated her own camera. Tashi had been monitoring what was happening from her partner’s point of view through the camera feed on her phone. When she arrived at the scene about five minutes later, Gary was still trying to get the girl warmed up. He waved her over.
“Shelly, this is my partner, Tashi Conrad,” he said as Tashi approached. “This is Shelly Casey. That’s her house.” Tashi glanced back briefly and saw an officer slowly walking the girl’s mother down the porch steps.
Tashi knelt down and smiled at the girl, who glanced at the camera hovering over Tashi’s right shoulder.
“I have a cupcake on my desk,” Tashi said. “Some agents will take you and your mom to our office now. We have to make sure you’re all okay and ask you some questions. You can have a little of the cupcake if you want while you wait for us. But leave me some of it, okay?” She smiled again.
Shelly gave no response as a couple of agents approached. Gary hopped down from the medical van. He waved at Shelly as an agent lifted her out of the van and another walked her mother toward the growing bunch of Agency vehicles. They loaded Alice and Shelly Casey into one of the black sedans that would go directly to the Office.
“You just happen to have a cupcake on your desk?” Gary asked as he and Tashi walked toward the house.
“I was celebrating.”
“The betrayal—I mean, promotion. Of course.” He bumped his shoulder against hers. “You should have gotten red velvet then.”
Tashi chuckled. “You can always come with me. You can probably be my boss at this point with your case closure rate.”
Gary ignored the compliment. “You know what they call the agents of DarkMaroon?” he said. “Maroon Goons.”
Tashi made a face. “That’s cheesy.”
“All you’ll be doing is tossing people around and kicking down doors.”
“It’s just a means to an end, my friend. I don’t plan on staying long.”
“You should stay in Orange longer. You’re more of a people person than you think.”
Tashi stopped in front of the house. From the outside, it appeared intact, save for cracks in some of the windows, the worse off being the attic.
Gary rubbed his hands together and blew on them. “You were watching my feed?”
“Just from the moment you entered the house.”
“The incident site officer briefed me before then. So at about one-thirty we got a call from the local PD. They themselves responded to an emergency call from the residence. We have a recording, but I just got here about ten minutes ago myself. It was Shelly who called. She was sleeping. Heard some scary noises. She called for her parents. When they didn’t come, she stepped out of her room. She said an explosion happened in the attic then and she thought her mom and brother were hurt. And she didn’t know where her dad was. She made the call from the kitchen. The operator asked her if she was in a safe place, then heard her scream. Then nothing.”
Tashi frowned looking up at the front porch. “She must have dropped the phone and run.”
“I’m wondering what made her scream. If she wasn’t too scared to look out of her room and to call for help, what did scare her?”
“Who responded first?”
“Fire department. There was no fire, but they found the front door open. They went in and found Mrs. Casey on the second floor, lying on the ground but trying to pull herself forward away from the attic using her good arm. They report that the house started…’shuddering’ is the word they used. And they heard weird noises and some of the firefighters felt nauseated. No one smelled any chemicals but that’s when someone made the call to alert the Agency. First team on site came at about one-forty-five. Science and incident management teams.”
“Have they determined if we need protective gear?”
Gary shook his head. “We can if we want to. But the house is clean as far as we can tell—at least now it is. The science team is following their hazard protocol, so they’re all suited up in there. But the rest of us haven’t bothered. And they say it’s structurally okay for us to go everywhere except the marked areas.”
Tashi nodded. “You want to go find out what that blood-curdling scream was all about?”
“Not so much,” Gary said as he led the way up the porch steps.
As he reached the third step, the ground began quaking. There was a sound of crashing from the roof. Gary yelled for the agents in the front room to get out. Several agents came pouring down the steps and they all ran outside of the perimeter. A part of the roof collapsed. The ground shook for several more seconds, and then it stopped.
The incident site officer yelled for someone to start taking role. And he sent a couple of agents in to evacuate anyone still in the house before the whole thing collapsed.
The science team had set up all manner of instruments and devices around the house, including an array of particle detectors. The detectors’ alarms began sounding. Gary and Tashi looked at each other.
Two agents dressed in blue all-hazard suits came out of the front door, one of them carrying a clear box with a metal riveting and a black handle. Biohazard and radiation hazard symbols were marked all along the case. And there was something inside, something that looked like a blob of flesh, oozing and moving. A roll of flesh slid forward revealing a patch of fine hair. There was an eerie sound coming from the box. It sounded like a voice saying, “da, da, da, da.”
Tashi’s eyes widened. “What is that?”
The agent holding the container removed her hood as she stopped before them. “We think it’s a baby,” she said. “We think we’ve found their son.”
“Maybe the guy was trying to open a portal,” Gary said from the passenger side. They were following the medical van, which contained the “special hazard,” also known as Timothy Casey, and they were both very conspicuously avoiding mention of the baby. “It wouldn’t be the first time we caught someone trying to do that. It didn’t look like black hole damage, so mini-white hole? Is there such a thing?”
“Damned scientists. Why can’t they keep it in their universe?”
Gary laughed. “Aren’t you a scientist?”
“Once, and I was a proper one. Not a rogue going off on her own.”
Gary slammed a hand on the dashboard. “Watch the red lights.”
“I’m watching. I’ve got to follow the van, don’t I?”
“So you don’t approve of the old-fashioned lone researcher making a discovery, testing it on himself—?”
“It’s reckless to work on your own. Unsafe. And if you don’t care about yourself, you should at least care about the people around you. They don’t deserve to be the victims of your careless idiocy.”
“Tell me how you really feel.”
“My opinions aside, I’m not making assumptions here. We already know this guy is a scientist. But we don’t have all the information yet. Maybe this was a natural phenomenon. Maybe he did it. Either way, we need to find him.”
“What if he’s dead? What if he got swallowed by this anomaly?”
“We’ll find out. We’ll talk to the one person who has got to have seen the whole thing.”
“She looked catatonic to me, Tash.”
Tashi sighed as she almost ran another red light trying to keep up with the special hazard van. “Let’s hope she can shake it off.”
The Director of DarkOrange Division met Gary and Tashi at the door when they returned to the Office after escorting the special hazard van to the Laboratory.
“We’ve had a development,” she said.
“You found the guy,” Tashi asked. “Daniel Casey?”
Director Galingale shook her head. “You’d better come take a look. We had the mother and the little girl waiting at your desks, but I had them moved into the medical isolation cells.”
As they passed by their desks, Tashi noted that the cupcake sitting on hers remained untouched. And as they passed through the whole section, she noted that the alarm lights lining the floors and ceilings were all flashing. The audible alarms must have been shut off. Agents were just beginning to return to their desks by the look of it.
The Director led them to the main monitoring room, which received video feeds from every part of the Office. She pointed to the two monitors that showed Shelly and Alice Casey, each in her own individual room. Particle detectors had been placed in their rooms. Alice looked, as Gary had said, catatonic. Shelly looked terrified. She was sitting on the bed, backed into a corner, legs drawn up, and arms around her knees.
“Poor kid,” the Director said. “She seems to be okay, but I couldn’t take a chance. According to our preliminary readings, Alice Casey started emitting some kind of…radiation I think. Or energy of some kind. We can detect something there, but we don’t know what it is yet. We don’t know much of anything at this point.”
“Her arm…” Gary put a hand over his mouth. He was looking at the monitor for Alice.
The Director nodded. “Yes, she lost half of it in the accident, I take it.”
“No,” Gary said. “She lost all of it in the accident.” He turned to her. “It was completely gone twenty minutes ago.”
The Director looked at both of them. “What the hell is going on here?”
“It grew back,” Gary said. “It regenerated.”
Tashi frowned. “In twenty minutes?”
The Director took off her glasses and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “All right, first things first, we need to make sure our people are safe while we investigate the accident and question witnesses. Our first priority is figuring out what happened to the man who seems to be at the center of this, Daniel Casey. If he’s at large, we need to go find him and contain him. He could be emitting the same kind of radiation his wife is emitting. You two need to get the witnesses to talk, and follow up with the medical team once they’ve examined the baby.”
After they were cleared, Agents Takita and Conrad went in to question the witnesses. Gary took Alice Casey. Tashi took Shelly. After a few hours of attempted coaxing and bribery, Tashi had not managed to bring Shelly away from the corner. She had brought in a juice bottle and a plate with a turkey sandwich and chips. And while the girl’s gaze tracked the food, she did not leave the corner in which she’d planted herself, and did not touched the meal even when Tashi gently placed it on the bed and pushed it toward her.
Tashi told her that she would try to return again that night and asked in the meantime, if Shelly could do her a favor and eat something and get some rest.
Tashi had a feeling the girl would only rest when she could no longer fight off sleep. She sighed as she closed the door to Shelly’s room. Gary was waiting just outside. He shook his head. It seems he had done no better with Alice.
“To the Lab?” he said.
Tashi watched through the glass window. Three of the medical techs were holding on to the baby. One had his head in both of her hands. Another had his arms under the baby’s armpits. And a third tech held one of Tim’s hands and was moving it up and down in a gesture that looked almost normal. Tim looked almost normal, if a bit flattened, compared to the formless blob they had seen earlier. But then two of the techs let go. And the third lifted the baby up. Tim’s head tipped backward. His neck stretched and thinned, like dough being pulled apart, and his head tumbled down, bumping against his bottom.
Tashi gasped and looked at the agent who was standing between her and Gary.
“He’s all right,” the agent said, clutching an e-pad to her chest. “He shouldn’t be, but thank goodness, he is.”
She handed the pad to Tashi and began clicking through the images on the screen.
“Physical exams and our very eyes tell us this kid has no bones,” she said. “But the three-dimensional scan shows otherwise. His skeleton is intact as far as all of our instrumentation is concerned.”
“Well, could it be that you’re not detecting bone because he’s got something else?” Gary asked. “I mean, do babies have bones, or is it—do they have cartilage instead?”
“He’s a baby, Takita. Not a shark.”
“Actually, he’s right about fetuses having cartilage,” the Lab agent said, “but a newborn wouldn’t. This baby is seven months and three days old. And cartilage is flexible, but not that flexible.”
“Have any of his bones come back?” Gary asked.
The Lab agent frowned. “How do you mean?”
“His mother’s right arm was missing,” Tashi said. “A result of the accident we presume.”
The agent checked her pad. “Hospital records for all family members show no missing limbs. What do you mean ‘was missing’?”
Gary crossed his arms in front of himself. “Half of it is back.”
“The agents who brought her to the Office had her in the back of their vehicle with her daughter,” Tashi said. “They didn’t see anything. The only person who could have is her daughter, and she’s so traumatized, she hasn’t said anything yet.”
“Why weren’t they brought here too, especially the mother?”
“They’re witnesses,” Gary said. “We needed to question them and despite her arm being missing and seeming to be in shock, Mrs. Casey didn’t seem to be in need of any medical treatment beyond what we were administering on-site and at the Office.”
The Lab agent frowned. “Who made that call?”
“We’ll transfer them here,” Tashi said. “You have actual rooms. We’ve got them in cells right now. And despite her condition, I’m less worried about Mrs. Casey than I am about her daughter. The poor girl is still in touch with reality, so in truth, I think she’s in the worst shape.”
“Maybe Alice can’t talk,” Gary suggested. “The accident. Can anyone checked to see if she still has vocal cords?”
“People who can’t talk can still communicate in other ways,” Tashi said. “And if Tim’s scans look normal, Alice’s might too.”
The Lab agent nodded. “We’ll check her once she arrives.”
“We have no idea what this is and how to treat the wounded,” Tashi said. “We need to find this baby’s father. He may be in trouble. He may be on the run. He may emitting radiation. But whatever the case, he’s got answers we need.”
“I hope so,” the Lab agent said. “I wasn’t finished telling you about the baby yet.”
Tashi braced herself and noticed Gary’s shoulders going stiff.
“He doesn’t seem to be aging. None of his cells have died since you brought him in. Not a single one. That wouldn’t happen even in suspended animation. I would say he’s frozen in time, but…” She gestured to the boy who was cooing and wobbling around and most definitely not frozen.
“He’s immortal?” Tashi said.
Gary looked at the boy. “And boneless.”
“Ignotus,” the Director said at the briefing the next morning. “We’re calling it a form of radiation. But it’s more complex than a particle or wave. It’s unlikely this phenomenon is being caused by a biological agent.”
Gary rubbed his chin. “Ignotus, that’s what Daniel Casey was messing around with?”
“According to our reconstruction, yes.” The Director pointed to the wall screen where an animation showed the event as she described it. “He trigged a burst of the ignotus. We think he got the bulk of it . His wife was in the attic, maybe just entering with the baby in her right arm as the ignotus burst then hit her. It only got her right arm, but the baby got the burst in his entire body, just like his father.”
The animation stopped and a new one began. “The girl was down the hall from the attic entrance,” the Director said. “We believe she was outside of the field. But we adjusted the sensitivity of our detectors. She is emitting very low levels of ignotus from proximity to the event, but there appear to be no physiological effects.”
“How does this explain Alice’s regenerating arm?” Gary asked. “Or the amazing elastic baby who has no bones and is not just alive but seemingly immortal?”
“Hormesis,” another agent said.
Gary raised his brows. “Excuse me?”
“Small doses of things that are bad for us might sometimes be good. They challenge our immune systems. Maybe the small amount of radiation that Shelly was emitting was enough to trigger a healing response in her mother.”
“I don’t buy it,” Tashi said. “Unless there’s some time acceleration effect going on too.”
“Why not? We don’t know what this ignotus thing is all about. That’s why the guy was studying it in the first place.”
The Director raised a hand palm facing outward. “All right, settle down everyone.”
“Director, where are we on tracking down this Daniel Casey?” Gary asked.
The Director sighed. “He works at a company called Biophysics Futura Limited. We called the owners last night and alerted them. Sent agents to beef up security there. They were the ones who tipped us off that it might be ignotus radiation we were dealing with. Turns out, Daniel Casey is their resident expert on practical applications of exotic particles. No one else in the company comes close to understanding what he was doing. He has brought in a lot of grants and other revenue for them in the past, so they’ve let him be.
“About half an hour ago, the company was hit. A few security guards and a few of our people who responded immediately to the alarm were found retching or passed out. They’re being treated for radiation poisoning.”
“Does anyone seem to be missing any body parts?” Gary asked.
The Director shook her head. “None reported. They all report feeling suddenly and violently nauseated. Security camera footage along his path blurred, blinked, or just went blank. But we’re certain it was Daniel Casey based on eyewitnesses and on what was taken.”
He managed to pass through a three-foot thick door made of titanium steel and requiring two people to simultaneously punch in codes and turn keys. He stole a piece of equipment that he himself had customized and built from an advanced particle detector model. So it’s looking more and more like he really did do whatever it was that caused that accident. And what’s worse, he might be trying to do it again.”
“Is he emitting this ignotus?” Tashi asked.
“Hard to tell. The instruments did measure some normal radiation—beta mostly—in the areas he moved through.”
“Is there any good news?”
“I just got a report from Blue division. Several hours ago, immediate neighbors started exhibiting symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. Luckily, symptoms improved immediately the farther away from the Casey residence they got. Some of those people are already back to normal. So whatever ignotus is, it’s not like ionizing radiation. The team that’s been monitoring the Casey residence set up some experimental detectors to measure and track the phenomenon. They say ignotus is more like an energy field with boundaries rather than like radiation, but I prefer the more alarming terminology if it’ll keep us on our toes. But that good news is only temporary. About an hour ago, the monitoring team reported that the field is fluctuating. It’s expanding then contracting, expanding and contracting, rinse and repeat. But overall, the field is expanding. We’ve now evacuated all residents in a one-mile radius.”
The Director held out her hand again and she swept her gaze across the room to assure that all thirty of so of her agents were paying attention.
“Due to the nature of the anomaly,” she said, “and the fact that it’s expanding, we’ve notified our international partners. Blue division is in the process of finding and getting a hold of any scientist who has even a passing knowledge of ignotus.”
“Is there any way to protect ourselves from the effects of the field?” Tashi asked. “If Daniel Casey is emitting it?”
“The guards at the company were wearing radiation suits. It didn’t protect them. And we have no medication that can prevent ignotus from affecting us. We need Daniel Casey alive, so we’ll arm the pursuit team with tranquilizer guns.”
She looked at Gary and Tashi. “What have you been able to find out from the witnesses?”
“Nothing,” Gary said. “From the mother. I tried all night.”
“The little girl is too scared to talk,” Tashi said. “ And it seems the mother literally can’t talk.”
“I swear it’s as if part of her brain is missing,” Gary said.
Tashi nodded. “All the medical scans of Alice and her son, Timmy, show nothing physically wrong with either of them. Her arm seems to be returning gradually, but scans show the whole thing is there.”
“I’d bet if we were to crack open Alice’s skull, half her brain would be missing.”
“We’re certainly not going to do that,” the Director said.
“What Gary means to say is, there is no getting any information out of Alice. Not unless her mind starts reappearing just like her arm.”
“Try them again. I’ll increase security at the Lab. He might try to get to his family.”
The family was all together now. They were in a room in the Lab that was made to seem as homey as possible given the giant one-sided window along one wall. Tashi watched, reluctant to pull them apart again. She stalled by waiting for Gary to sign them in. Shelly was drawing furiously while her mother sat quietly on the chair beside her, vacantly staring out of ochre eyes. There was an empty plate between them. Shelly had finally eaten something. Unfortunately that something was a blueberry filled donut.
Timmy Casey lay in a puddle on the table. He looked like a cartoon character after a safe had been dropped on it. He was making some kind of noise.
“Da, da, da, da…”
Tashi frowned. That was the same sound he’d been making when they first found him. He hadn’t made that particular vocalization since.
She blinked. And suddenly the particle detector alarms all went off. Tashi rushed into the room, but by the time she entered, the alarms had turned off.
“Daddy just said goodbye,” Shelly said, not looking up from her drawing.
Shelly looked up, sadness and resignation and love in her eyes. “He just came. To say goodbye.”
“Goodbye? Sounds like he’s planning on committing suicide,” Gary said.
“I don’t think so,” Tashi said. They were in the Lab’s main control room, trying to raise the Maroon team that was chasing down Daniel Casey and trying to bring up the video feed from the past half hour.
“So what this guy can walk through walls and freeze time?”
Tashi shrugged. She shook her head, fast-forwarding through the video. There was interference in the moment before Tashi entered the room.
“All our instruments,” she said to herself.
Gary leaned toward her. “What?”
“All our instruments keep showing what’s not there and not showing what is there.”
“We can’t raise them,” the communications agent said. “Something is interfering.”
“The ignotus field,” Gary said. “Are they anywhere near the Casey residence?”
“That’s not where they were sent.”
“So they’re in his field,” Gary said. “Maybe they found him, but they’re too close, and signals can’t get in or out.”
“Keep trying to raise the Maroon team,” Tashi said. “In the meantime, Takita, we’ve got to gather up some Oranges and—
Tashi pretended to sigh out of exasperation, but it was a sigh of temporary relief. If Gary was still making jokes, things were still okay in the world. “—get to his house. That’s where he’s going. And it doesn’t seem as if he cares that we’ll find him.”
“How do you know?”
“He told his daughter he was going home.”
“That seems too easy,” Gary said. “Are you sure he didn’t mean, like the land of his forefathers?”
“Has anyone been able to contact the science teams at the Casey residence?”
“I’m trying,” the communications tech said. “They’re not answering either.”
Gary and Tashi looked at each other. Gary pulled out the keys to his car. Tashi nodded and they both headed for the door.
There were hazard-suited men and women lying on the ground outside of the house. The entire street was empty, all houses evacuated. The instruments outside were melted and mangled. The front door to the house was open. Gary, Tashi, and the few agents they’d brought with them from the Office started into the house. Each agent activated a camera eye. The Director, who was watching their feeds from the Office, was still trying to get a hold of the Maroon team. Chasing down suspects was not Orange work.
They made their way into the house, clearing each room per protocol. Tashi kept fearing that Daniel Casey would just walk through a wall and appear in front of her. She was in the hallway leading up to the attic. A sound as of a pebble on the ground made her glance down.
Then her head jerked up. Daniel Casey was standing right in front of her. His hands were empty.
“Halt, right there. Get your hands up,” she said, pointing her tranquilizer at him.
A pungent odor stabbed into Tashi’s nostrils. She gagged. Her communicator buzzed.
“Agent Con…whaz–zappen—” Her earpiece went dead.
Her muscles seemed to liquefy. She dropped to the floor with a grunt. Her camera eye dropped to the floor right in front of her, the lens cracking. Tashi still had a grip on her gun. She willed herself to feel her muscles. Daniel Casey walked past her as she struggled to rise. She made it to her feet. Her stomach caught up a few seconds later, sloshing and spinning. She hurled herself at him, but he caught her and pitched her forward. Tashi rolled over and launched gobs of vomit onto the plush carpeting.
Throwing up seemed to have helped. Her throat burned, but she didn’t feel as nauseated. Spitting and coughing, Tashi sat upright, trying not to let her tongue touch the roof of her mouth.
She had dropped her gun. She reached over and grabbed it. She positioned herself into a crouch on one knee in the center of the hallway. She watched him reach up and pull down on the handle that lowered the stairs to the attic.
“Stop! Put your hands up and turn around or I will shoot.”
But he didn’t stop.
Tashi rose and walked forward and entered a whirlpool of vertigo. Her fingers flexed in a spasm and she dropped the gun. Claws of pain clutched and tore her gut. Tashi wrapped her arms around her stomach and folded over. She stumbled back and slammed against the wall.
Daniel Casey began climbing the stairs, lifting each leg slowly, as if he had a hundred-pound weight around each ankle. Tashi watched as her partner moved silently past her, his own weapon raised. A chill streaked up Tashi’s spine and sparked at the base of her skull.
Gary looked shaky. She couldn’t understand how he was managing to remain standing much less walking upright. He coughed into his shoulder, and Daniel Casey froze. Gary kept advancing. Tashi pushed herself away from the wall. She felt a slight wave of dizziness. Her head was beginning to ache. But she was otherwise okay. She bent slowly to retrieve her weapon.
“Easy,” Gary said, still advancing. “Raise your hands and turn around slowly.”
Daniel Casey turned around. Sweat trickled along his lower jaw and dripped from his chin.
“I can fix this,” Daniel said glancing between Tashi and Gary. “But only from the other side.”
“The other side of what?” Gary said.
“It’s asymmetrical.” He took a shallow breath. It seemed to take him some effort to speak and there was a strange distortion to his voice. “My machine was here and there was no counterpart on the other side. That’s why the accident happened. The unstable field. I have to bring the duplicate machine to the other reality. And activate it from there. That will stabilize then collapse the connection between the realities, slow enough to restore most of the damage.”
It sounded like the plot of a summer sci-fi movie. “Why not from here?” Tashi asked. “What’s the difference?”
“I have to establish field symmetry,” Daniel said. “If I don’t, the field will continue to destabilize and grow and swallow everything in its path.”
Tashi raised her weapon and stepped beside her partner. “I’m sure you can understand why we wouldn’t want to trust you. You made that anomaly—the ignotus field—in the first place.”
“I made a mistake. When I made the field, I didn’t know that it was asymmetrical. There are two realities. Juxtaposed. My wife. My son. They got caught in the field and they’re out of phase with this reality. But their connection with the other reality is stable enough for them to stay alive. But if the field remains asymmetrical, it will destabilize. They won’t survive it. No one will. In either reality. I’m trying to save them.”
“Even if we believe you,” Gary said, his voice calm and steady. “We can’t allow you to do something that might make this worse.”
“It can’t get any worse. I know the Agency has enough expertise to have figured it out. The field will expand, farther and farther, until it envelops the country, the world, the solar system. It will keep going, pulling in on itself, pushing out, until everything is distorted and eventually dead.” He raised his arms. “I can’t do any more harm than I’ve already done.”
Tashi lowered her weapon.
“Tash…” Gary said. But he too was lowering his weapon.
“What do you plan to do exactly?” Tashi asked.
Daniel gestured for them to follow him up the stairs. They hadn’t seen the attic the first time. The part of the roof that had collapsed was restored again, but it looked somewhat skewed, as if it was an image that had been cut and pasted back at slightly wrong angles. There were marks along the floor and walls in a swirl or spiral pattern.
“I have to phase into that other reality completely and take that with me.” He pointed to a machine that looked a lot like a portable particle detector, only small and more complex-looking. “I have to create another field on that side, and that will balance this field. That should start fixing things.” His expression was one of desperate hope.
“How long will it take?” Gary asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t they have to be here too?” Tashi asked.
“No! Don’t bring them here. The farther away they are, the better.”
“Your wife’s arm. It was gone and then it started coming back. Too fast to be regeneration. Faster even than cancerous growth.”
Daniel nodded. “You took her away from the field.”
“But your son is missing all this bones,” Gary said. “They didn’t come back when we moved him away.”
“And neither did your wife’s mind.”
Daniel winced. “Different tissues. Different people react differently. Just like with normal radiation. Ignotus…it traverses different realities. Usually it passes right through us all the time, doing nothing. But, I got its attention.”
“In a bad way,” Gary said.
Tashi took a deep breath. She still felt slightly nauseated. “Do you need for us to do anything?”
“Get as far away as possible.”
“What if something goes wrong?” Tashi asked. “What if it doesn’t work?”
Daniel Casey staggered back, hitching and gasping. Then he took one deep breath. The walls of the attic warped and swelled. Pulses of queasiness barraged Tashi. Daniel Casey’s hand launched toward his machine trailing a chain of afterimages.
Gary had fallen, it seemed. She glimpsed him through the blur of ghost imprints that followed Daniel Casey’s movements. Gary got to his feet somehow and made his way to her. They grabbed onto each and other and stumbled down the attic stairs as the house began to shudder. They called to the other agents in the house. Everyone evacuated and moved behind the old perimeter, just across the street from the house. It was as far as they were able to go, dragging the unconscious members of the science team.
They watched as the attic, after emitting a bright flash, collapsed in on itself. And the house stopped shuddering.
Tashi looked down at the puddle of flesh in the glass case with its two crystal blue eyes popping out of it like a frog beneath water. While a medical tech carefully lifted the gooey child, Tashi sighed and looked at the corner, where Alice Casey sat on her daughter’s bed. Shelly Casey was standing on her knees behind her mother, combing Alice’s hair. It had been a few days since Alice had drunk anything but her own spit. They were keeping her hydrated through IV bags.
Tashi was supposed to have reported to her new division that morning. But she asked for a delay. Just a few more days. To see if Daniel Casey had succeeded. To see if he had saved his family.
A few days later, she got a call from an agitated Agent Takita.
“Did something happen? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, just get down here. You have to see this.”
When Tashi arrived at the Office, there was a general mood of relief and delight. So before Gary led her to the room where the Casey family spent most of their days, Tashi already knew what to expect.
Through the window, she saw a familiar scene. Shelly Casey was sitting at a table, furiously drawing. But she kept glancing up at her mother. Alice Casey sat beside her daughter. Across from them sat Director Galingale who was talking to Alice. Alice nodded, responded back, gave a polite smile, and glanced down at the baby cradled in her intact right arm.
Tashi had known what to expect, but seeing it. She placed a hand over her mouth and felt a film of tears forming in her eyes.
Gary chuckled. “I knew you were a people person.”
Tashi grinned as she leaned toward him and shoved her shoulder into his.
“Director Galingale just gave her a condensed version of events,” Gary said. “And she told Alice that her husband is dead.”
Tashi blinked a few times, her smile fading. It was time to be professional. “That’s probably for the best.”
“She’s asking for us. Alice, that is. I didn’t know if you wanted me to wait for you or go in first or—“
Tashi put a hand on his arm. “Together,” she said. They walked into the room. Alice rose out of her chair as the Director introduced the agents. Tashi extended her hand.
Alice Casey, her blue eyes as confused and bright as her son’s, received Tashi’s hand and shook it.
“I’m very happy to meet you, Mrs. Casey.”
“Alice, please. They tell me you and your partner were with my husband when he…when he died.”
Alice glanced back at her daughter, who looked up at Tashi and gave her a quick smile. Timmy slept in his mother’s arms. He was beautiful.
Alice looked between Gary and Tashi. “Will you tell us what happened to Daniel?”
“Rough morning,” Gary said, as he and Tashi exited the Office building into the parking structure. “But a good one.”
The Director had given the two of them the rest of the day off. Gary shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a bunch of color-coded keys. He tugged at a lock of his hair. It was a week later and aside from a few scars from burns that were still healing, none of the Agency personnel who’d been involved in the case were suffering ill effects. Astoundingly, no one had died.
“Who cares about your hair, Takita, as long as the puking has stopped?”
He leaned down to look into the side view mirror and tugged at the front locks. “I feel like I’ve lost a lot more than usual in the shower lately.”
“I don’t ever want to puke again.”
“That’s the job, Conrad. No guts. No glory.”
Tashi groaned and laughed. “I can’t believe this case. Exotic particles, trans-dimensional fields, phasing through matter.”
“Right up your alley.”
“I’ll follow up for sure,” Tashi said, “and not just on the science. But later.”
“So, what about the other thing?”
Tashi gave him a sideways glance and smiled. “I submitted the paperwork this morning.”
Gary pressed the button on his key chain and his unmarked black sedan blinked and beeped at them.
“Damn, so I’m officially stuck with you still.”
“For the time being. I don’t want to be a goon. And if there’s no direct path to Blue, I’ll have to make one.”
“They are complementary colors, you know.”
“I do know that.”
“It’ll be good for you to stick around.”
“I know that too.”
“So, what do you want to do with the rest of this day? Breakfast?”
Tashi rubbed her hands together. “Yeah, let’s go for some donuts.”
Copyright © 2013 by Nila L. Patel.