Jeremy Falls remembered when he first came to Roaring Ridge (where there was no roaring and no ridge to speak of). It was a clear and cloudless Tuesday. The first person he’d met was the sheriff. The second person he’d met was the owner of the town’s only diner. The first impression he’d made was as a decent enough fella, passing through town on his way to the mountains. The second impression he’d made, after settling in as the town’s newest resident, was as a conspiracy theorist, and the town crazy.
But Jeremy was a decent enough fella, and despite the exciting name, the town was a quiet, eventless place. They seemed to like having their own “conspiracy nut” around to talk about stuff like aliens and vampires and the Jersey devil (all of which Jeremy believed in). He did no one any harm, even the children, for they would go from widening their eyes at this tall tales to rolling their eyes, when they got old enough.
As someone who believed in the unbelievable, Jeremy was constantly monitoring radio and television channels, particularly abandoned and unused frequencies, searching for alien transmissions and the like. On average, about once a month, he would find something he thought worthy of reporting to the town’s ultimate authority, Sheriff Irene Starr.
The town had a mayor, but he lived in the city of Roarington, which was about fifty miles away. He owned a house in Roaring Ridge and visited once a month. The residents of the town didn’t mind. They liked visitors, but they didn’t like outsiders who wanted to butt into their affairs. And anyway, in Jeremy’s esteem, the man was one of those pompous rich types (as opposed to the humble rich types who remembered where they came from, like the previous mayor).
No one really asked Jeremy Falls about his past much. They made assumptions, passed rumors. But no one sincerely asked him. Except the sheriff. She had likely looked him up and hadn’t found much. There was nothing much to find on official record. He liked Sheriff Starr. She was much like him. More than what she seemed. Less than what she should have been.
That’s why she was the first person he thought of whenever he heard a transmission he thought was significant, or when he thought something might be creeping about outside his window, or out in the woods around his house. If anyone else were sheriff, they wouldn’t have bothered with looking into his reports. And if anyone else were sheriff, he wouldn’t have bothered with them.
He was having another sleepless night as he had been all week. He’d been in Roaring Ridge for almost five years and for most of that time, he’d been able to sleep. Not one person knew what a miracle it was that he could sleep without aid of medicine or machine in their blessed town. The first few months were rough but then, he slept and slept. And when he dreamed, they were normal dreams, even boring dreams sometimes. And being rested made a huge difference in his ability to function. He could hold down a job, think clearly and coherently. And that’s why, despite his continued rantings, he had begun, slowly, to stop believing. Or perhaps his conscious mind, now in charge most of the time, was forgetting that he believed because he had proof, or he once did anyway.
That’s why it was so upsetting for him to hear the transmission that morning. Because he’d been losing sleep and feeling strange, and now, here was a voice on a rare frequency, speaking of apocalyptic things. And Jeremy believed the voice.
There was no static. The voice was clear. It was a man. Not old, but not young. He had the weight of some grief and some great responsibility in his voice. Jeremy listened to the message, pulling out his phone to start recording it for later review.
“…don’t know what it’s called on your side. On my side, it’s called Roaring Ridge.”
The man warned of a weather phenomenon that would come out of nowhere, fog or a sudden thundershower. The weather presaged something more dangerous. Radiation. Something new, “rare and exotic.” They had to follow his instructions. He had sent help. He provided the names of two agents for some agency that he didn’t—couldn’t—name. He mentioned having a family and gave their names. He said the message would repeat for about twelve hours and announced his hope that someone would hear it in that time, hear it and act upon it.
The message began again, and this time, Jeremy heard it from the beginning.
“My name is Daniel Casey. You’re going to think this transmission is a hoax, but it is not. I will give you the names of people in authority who can vouch for me. But first, I have to warn you. You and your town are in danger. I don’t know what it’s called on your side, but on my side, it’s called Roaring Ridge. You’re going to see some strange kind of weather at some point. Maybe it’s already happened, a thick fog, a sudden and unexpected thundershower…”
“…He answers to the name of Buster. In a nutshell, an interdimensional portal has been opened and the radiation is a by-product of that opening. I did not open this portal, but I am responsible for it,” the voice of Daniel Casey said for the fifth time. Jeremy listened to the transmission from his car as he drove down the main road through town (the aptly named Main Street).
“I will help you counteract the radiation. You must do that first. You won’t be able to approach the portal unprotected from the radiation and tidal forces. Once you’re protected, the portal then has to be found and closed. For that, you will need help from the Agency. This radiation can’t be detected by the usual means, like Geiger counters or scintillation counters. And it can’t be counteracted by the usual measures…”
“I’ll bet,” Jeremy said. He idled along the street. The fog-filled street. It was a thick and low blanket. It had condensed around him as he started driving. He felt the chill of it seeping through the seams in his sedan. But just as suddenly as it had formed, it was already dissipating, almost as if it was being sucked away by something. Two cars had driven by him and he didn’t try to stop them. Dawn hadn’t arrived yet. Those people were likely driving out to their jobs in Roarington.
As the fog cleared, Jeremy peered down the street at a moving object that was most definitely not another car. It was an animal. As it came closer, he saw it was some fancy-looking breed of dog. One of those little ones about twenty or thirty pounds. It looked like a fox. It wasn’t like any breed he’d ever seen, but he knew people bred all kinds of dogs nowadays.
Answers to the name of Buster.
Jeremy rolled down his window. The fog was mostly gone now.
That means it’s too late, he thought.
He whistled and called out to the dog. “Hey boy! Buster! Come here, Buster!”
The dog did not stop trotting, but at the sound of his name, veered toward Jeremy, who stopped the car, opened the door, and waited for the dog to come to him.
Irene Starr, sheriff of Roaring Ridge, narrowed her eyes and cocked her head as she listened to the rest of the strange message.
“You can go to any police station or sheriff’s office and request that they contact these agents at Dark Orange. I can’t name the agency they work for in an open transmission. Record this message if you can and play it for the agents. If you can’t, then tell them that your town has been exposed to ignotus radiation. Tell them to restore the symmetry. And please, tell my wife and children that I’m alive and well. Their names are Alice, Shelly, and Timothy. This message will repeat for about twelve hours. That should be long enough for someone to hear and act.”
Irene sighed and clicked off the transmission. She had recorded it and listened to it three times. Most if not all the townspeople had probably not heard it yet. Most of them were still sleeping and those who weren’t were likely listening to music or a news station as they started their days.
There was only one person she could be sure of having heard it. And of all the people in town, it was the one person she didn’t want hearing a transmission like that. She nodded to the deputy who was still on shift for a few hours as she headed to the door of the station. She had some damage control to do. She opened the door and started, for there was the very person she had been rushing out of the door to find.
And for some reason, he had a dog tucked under his left arm. She looked at the dog, her brows knit in puzzlement, and then realization dawned, and those same brows rose up. She looked up at Jeremy.
He nodded and gave her a slight smile. “Buster,” he said.
She glanced down at the dog. He yipped at her happily, wagging his puffy and curly tail. He certainly wasn’t some vagrant that Jeremy had picked up. He even had a collar. “You don’t say.”
Jeremy walked past her and turned around, raising his free arm. “I know what you’re going to say, Sheriff. This is just like all the other transmissions. It’s a hoax, even though the guy says it’s not, because why wouldn’t he say it’s not a hoax. You’re going to mention that one time that radio show aired and people thought it was real and panicked—“
“It could be a radio show.” She turned to her deputy. “We’re checking on that right now.”
Jeremy continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “But if it is real and you do nothing and people start dying of radiation poisoning, then that will be on you. Better safe than sorry.” He looked at her then, with that familiar look of intensity. He had latched on to this…event.
Irene crossed her arms. “I agree. That’s why I’ve contacted that agency that Mr. Casey mentions in his message.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened. “Oh no, you shouldn’t have done that. We…we should have just followed his instructions.”
“What instructions? He says he’ll provide some, but then he doesn’t.”
Jeremy held up the dog, who breathed with his mouth open and his tongue lolling to one side. “This is the help he sent.”
Before Irene could frown, Jeremy raised his free hand and touched the dog’s collar, specifically the eyeball-sized silver sphere that hung from the collar.
“This is the Robot Sphere,” a familiar voice said. “After you verify my story, follow my instructions for how to activate it. I won’t lie. The counter-radiation measure will be scary.” The voice stopped when Jeremy moved his hand away from the sphere.
Irene hesitantly touched the sphere. “This is the Robot Sphere—“ She let go, jerking her hand away as if she’d just touched a venomous serpent.
“If you keep touching it, he gives complete instructions,” Jeremy said. He frowned. “He’s right though. It’s not something I want to do. I’ll quarantine myself or something. But maybe it’s okay for everyone else.”
Irene put up both her hands in an appeasing gesture. “Okay, but we have to verify this man’s story first. For all we know, even though he’s urging us to check him out, he may be counting on us panicking and trusting him and doing what he asks us to do without verifying his story first. For all we know, we might be fine right now, but following his instructions might be how we unleash this radioactivity, or some other danger.”
“Do you really think the guy would risk his dog?” Jeremy asked looking down at the squirming mass of fur below his armpit. He looked back up at Irene. “And he said he has a family.”
“He could be lying about the family. Or all of it.”
“Well, how do you know he’s telling the truth about this mysterious agency? Those names he gave could just be some cronies he’s hired to act like they’re government agents. They come in here and take over the town and the next thing you know, we’re all lying on cold metal slabs in our underwear, or less, and the horror begins.”
Irene frowned. “Do you believe this guy or do you suspect him?”
“Both….” He lowered his head and then looked at her askance. “Like you.”
“Okay, I get it. This is either nothing, which is what I’m hoping for, or it’s something. And if it’s something, then this guy is either on the up-and-up or he’s a villain trying to take advantage of us. There is a way we can find out for sure.” She paused for a moment to make sure he was listening. “As a law enforcement officer, I was already aware of the presence of this Agency that Mr. Casey mentions and of what they do. They investigate this kind of strange phenomena. They are legitimate. They have local affiliations with police and sheriffs and even universities. I hear they even fund themselves mostly.”
“Why are they so secretive with the public then?”
“Because most of the stuff they investigate is the kind of stuff you believe in. And most people don’t want to know that some of that stuff is real.” Irene could not read the montage of emotions that flashed across Jeremy’s face.
By mid-morning, Irene was awaiting Jeremy’s “I told you so,” when the entire town became surrounded by police vehicles and black vans and sedans, which Irene only guessed were from the Agency. A perimeter had been set up and there were unusual machines being erected. She was contacted by the agent she had called who passed her on to one of the agents mentioned in Daniel Casey’s message, one Agent Conrad. The agent briefed Irene on the situation outside. The machines that were being set up were radiation detectors and the town was indeed enveloped in the radiation, but as yet, it had not spread beyond the perimeter that had been formed. Any who had left town before the perimeter formed were being tracked down so they could be brought back and tested.
As the town’s highest official, Irene gathered everyone in the square. There were almost two hundred people there. And while most, maybe all, had not heard Daniel Casey’s message, they were all acutely aware of the sudden blockade around their town. The crowd expressed the gamut of expected emotions: annoyance and irritation, anger, alarm, shock.
Irene assigned the two deputy sheriffs in town to keep the people calm as she spoke. She explained to them what was going on, that they had somehow been exposed to some new form of radiation and had to stay put to assure they didn’t spread it. She said they had a solution, but she needed them to remain calm and follow instructions. When she explained how the radiation would be counteracted, there was an uproar. People clutched their babies to their chests, shook their heads and put their hands over their mouths, wept, said they felt fine and that they didn’t believe the sheriff. They had woken to what they thought was an ordinary morning only to find themselves in a nightmare. She didn’t dare mention the portal, or that it was still open.
But then Jeremy stepped up beside Irene with Buster still under his arm, and that actually helped to calm the people. They all knew who he was. He was a conspiracy hound and a vocal critic of authority. Even though they knew that Jeremy and Irene were friendly rivals at worst, seeing him there must have given them the sense that someone other than the mysterious, looming Government Agent had Irene’s ear. Irene admitted to not having control over everything. They were dealing with the unknown. She was dealing with the unknown. So she had called in help from outside. And she asked for the townspeople’s help as well. But at last, she said, she was ultimately responsible for protecting the people of the town and she would do everything in her power to make sure that they all made it through the current crisis.
Time seemed to have accelerated. Daniel Casey’s instructions were clear enough and seemed simple. The Agency had located the portal using their detectors and all the townsfolk had been warned away from the area. No one would be able to approach the portal until they protected themselves according to Casey’s instructions. But those instructions required the gathering of materials and that took longer than Jeremy had thought it would. The townsfolk knew Sheriff Starr, knew that she was the best sheriff they had ever had, that even though it was a quiet town, they still needed her. They knew that it was better she was in charge than their mayor, who had only commented on the local news (from the comfort of his home fifty miles away).
The sheriff had let Jeremy keep close to the goings-on as if he were one of her deputies. And the deputies didn’t mind either. He was their resident expert on the strange, after all, even though he was as clueless about their current situation as they were. But that didn’t seem to matter to the sheriff. Strong as she was, she was struggling. For one thing, she couldn’t be everywhere at once. And neither could the two deputies. As they gathered the required chemicals and headed to the scrap metal yard, they heard more reports about how some folks were trying to break the police barricade and get out of town.
There were lookie loos and the press had naturally found out what was going on and were trying to find out what nefarious government plot the little town was victim to. There were helicopters hovering near the town, but none flew over it or above it. The airspace just above the town and one hundred yards or so around the town had been deemed a no-fly zone.
The sheriff had no time to panic or fret. She had to keep everyone else calm. But then that cursed Agent Conrad did something that Jeremy could not fathom. During one of their update briefings, the agent put someone on the phone with Irene that she was not expecting. A little girl named Shelly. She was one of Daniel Casey’s children. She wanted to know if they had received any more word from her father, or if they had been able to speak with him. Jeremy watched as the sheriff’s shoulders drooped. She held the mute button as she sighed. Then she composed herself, straightened her back, and disappointed the little girl.
“No, honey, I’m sorry. We haven’t actually spoken to your dad. But if he sends another message, we’ll let you know. I gave Agent Conrad the channel he used, so she’ll have it on for you in case he tries again.”
The sheriff said nothing after the call was over, though Jeremy saw anger and irritation on her face.
“I wonder why he hasn’t send another message,” Jeremy said, trying to distract her from her anger somewhat. They walked toward the sheriff’s car with Buster. Their next stop was the scrapyard. “I mean…if the portal is open.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Maybe there’s interference.”
“Maybe there’s a time dilation.”
She glanced at him as they drove along. A sliver of sunlight remained above the tree line. It sank and vanished at she responded. “Like he’s going faster or slower than us?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I tried to send a message on that channel he used. Got nothing back.”
Irene removed the sphere from Buster’s collar. The instructions started playing again, startling the two brothers who owned the scrapyard and their able teenage assistant. They had unloaded the needed materials: household bleach, charcoal pills, and a slew of other items mostly gathered from the local drug store.
One thing Daniel Casey had said about the radiation that he called “ignotus” (which Irene found out from one of her classically trained deputies meant “unknown” in Latin) was that any person or animal who’d been exposed to and survived ignotus would thereafter effectively be immune to it. In that way, it was more like an infection than like any known radiation.
That tidbit led to the revelation of Buster’s second purpose. First he was the delivery dog. Then he was the control. Daniel Casey’s Robot Sphere would create hundreds to thousands of tiny robots from commonly found scrap metal and synthetics that would then be installed with and programmed by nano-scale chips from the sphere. Their directive: to find any macroscopic organism affected by ignotus, attach to that organism, and produce a counter-radiation field around the organism. But if it found an organism that was immune, the robot would not attach. Buster had been exposed to ignotus already and survived it. The robots should not attach to him. That was no guarantee that they would correctly attach to and protect those who suffered their first exposure. Daniel Casey hadn’t had time to send more controls.
According to Agent Conrad, ignotus did not behave like ordinary radiation. The town wouldn’t be contaminated for thousands of years thereafter. Once the portal was closed, the radiation would dissipate. As would the need for the counter-radiation robots, which the Agency would take custody of upon debriefing everyone in town.
The supposed end result seemed too clean to Irene. No residue from the radiation? No ill effects from the shielding robots? Something might either go wrong, or some miscalculation on the part of those who knew the mechanics, the science of it all, might lead to disaster anyway. It was an unknown form of radiation after all. Who was to say what would really happen? But she had to do something. Even if she perished. Even if the townsfolk perished with her and Roaring Ridge came to an end. She had to do something to save it.
So Irene told everyone to stand back, but now that they were doing something, the men in the scrapyard with her were not content to let her go it alone. Jeremy knelt before her on the ground, donning one of the pairs of goggles they had acquired. He already had on rubber gloves and a thick welder’s apron.
“Tiny autonomous robots doing autonomous things. This can’t possibly end well,” he muttered. “And they want to attach to our bodies. That’s one step away from entering our bodies. When do I get to say ‘I told you so’?”
“You just did, Jer. And maybe you’re right, but this may be our only recourse.”
When they finished making the concoction that Daniel Casey referred to as the “dissolution buffer,” they poured it over the sphere.
The sphere began to melt and before it dissolved completely, five tiny robots burst out from its core. They were the size and shape of beetles. They scampered into the junkyard. For the better part of an hour, nothing else seemed to happen. Irene and the others just heard the eerie sounds of scraping and squeaking. Every now and then a pile of scrap would collapse, startling them.
And then, a few hours before midnight, dozens of robots came skittering out toward them. These too looked like beetles. Buster pounced on one and it rolled up into a ball like a pillbug when touched. Irene held her breath, then knelt down and put out her hand. One of the robots crawled onto her hand, slowing it seemed, as it touched her skin. It attached to the back of Irene’s left hand, and she felt a spark, like of static electricity, and then nothing.
She rose and took a breath. Did she feel more solid? Agent Conrad had warned that the radiation had a phasing effect on physical objects, including people’s bodies. Irene wondered what that would mean to the people of the town if they didn’t accept these little robot shields. The scrapyard crew followed their sheriff’s lead and likewise let themselves be robot-latched. The robots veered around Buster, ignoring him, though he was still trying to pounce on them.
Jeremy looked reluctant. He was standing on the hood of her car. He didn’t want robots on him or in him or anywhere around him. There was a look of mixed horror and disgust on his face as he watched the robots latch onto the spindly trees that rimmed the scrapyard. Irene braced herself to literally talk him down and get him to accept a robot. But she didn’t have to. After a final shake of his head, he jumped down and stood in the path of the robots that were still streaming out of the scrapyard, some crawling, a few taking to the air. Irene wondered if the flying ones would actually try to hunt down birds and bugs. The town only had a couple of hundred human beings, but there were many other “macroscopic organisms” around, like the trees and other animals. They would all need robots.
Jeremy didn’t deign to kneel but seemed to be waiting for a robot to crawl up his leg. As it turned out, he had nothing to fear. The robots were swerving around him, as certainly as they were going around Buster.
Irene stared at Jeremy, her eyes wide. He had always claimed that he had had some kind of…experience. Something he couldn’t consciously remember. Something he didn’t want to remember. Something that left enough of an impression on his subconscious that he believed in the unbelievable. Maybe they had just uncovered part of that mystery.
Jeremy Falls had been exposed to ignotus radiation before, and he had survived that exposure.
As the robots tramped into town and scurried to find organisms to shield, Irene and Jeremy drove to the location where the portal device was located. It was near the center of town and yet no one had noticed it because it was in the basement of the town’s library. Ever since the town’s records had been moved into the new council building across the street, no one used the library’s basement for anything but the storage of broken chairs, and old empty shelving. No one went down there save to fix the occasional broken pipe.
The deputies met Irene and Jeremy outside the library. She stationed one outside and one at the foot of the steps leading down to the basement. Jeremy insisted on coming with her, arguing that his immunity to the radiation might serve as better protection than those scrapyard robots.
“You’re gonna to get tetanus or sepsis or something,” he said, glaring at the robot on her hand.
Irene could hardly feel it. “I guess that’s what all those household cleaners were for.”
Half the overhead lights were out. They both clicked on their flashlights. Irene kept a hand on her service pistol, unlatching the holster, but not yet drawing. Someone had turned on that portal. Someone who had been in their town, and maybe was long gone, or maybe was still lurking about. She would think about the “why” later, even though Jeremy had asked that question again and again on the drive over. He was rightfully disturbed about his immunity. But he had wrongfully started blaming himself for the town’s predicament. He talked himself into believing that someone who wanted him, someone from his past, maybe someone from the other side of that portal, had hunted him to Roaring Ridge. And he was deaf to Irene’s objections.
To keep him occupied and focused, Irene gave him the ignotus detector that Agent Conrad had sent in using one of the Agency’s messenger drones (which Jeremy had eyed with disdain).
Agent Conrad had sent a picture of the portal device as well. She had explained that the device must have been turned on in our dimension and another one like it in the other dimension. That was the only known way a portal could have been opened. Those facts left many unanswered questions. The only portal devices in existence should have been in the custody of the Agency in Irene’s dimension and of Daniel Casey in the other dimension. He was the scientist who had invented the device. And his invention had caused him—and his family—much grief, the last of which was his banishment to another dimension. Irene hoped she wasn’t walking into some kind of trap, or as Jeremy had always warned, some kind of experiment.
She started feeling sluggish right as the detector in Jeremy’s hands began to beep and whistle furiously. They swung their flashlights around and then they saw it. It was right there, lying on an empty shelf. Not quite empty. There was a thin volume with a curling cover just underneath, some old book that wasn’t worth salvaging by someone’s judgment. They stopped where they were. They didn’t have to report anything. One of the Agency’s many gadgets was another little drone that hovered behind them. It bore a camera and an antenna that broadcasted a live feed back to the people waiting in the vans in the perimeter outside the town. Jeremy turned off the ignotus detector and set it down.
“It’s time for me to face it, Irene.”
Irene swallowed. Her mouth was suddenly so dry. “Face what?”
Irene frowned. She followed his gaze to the portal device. “But you don’t remember. You’re not prepared.”
“I should have been. Instead of hiding my head in the sand.”
“You weren’t hiding. You always knew something had happened to you. It’s just…I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. But there’s no way I would have unless I’d seen it and felt it, like I see and feel this.” And she was feeling it now. There was something pulling and pressing and pushing at her. It was not exactly like being buffeted by strong winds or waves, but that was the closest comparison that came to mind.
“At least I know now,” Jeremy said. His voice was quiet but steady and sure. “Something came for me from where this poor fella is trapped. Something came a long time before he made this device. And it’s come back for me now. And it’s put all my people in danger.” He had a glint in his eye that Irene had never seen before, not in Jeremy’s eye. She had sometimes seen befuddlement in those eyes, sometimes intensity. But there had always been an undertone of doubt and of helplessness, like that of a man straining to reach something that was just out of his reach. But now, she saw resolve and clarity.
Jeremy looked up beyond the device as if he saw something there. And he strode toward it.
Irene frowned, puzzled. It was getting hard to breathe and to keep her eyes open. They stung as if she hadn’t slept enough, and they drooped. She grabbed the wall and leaned against it to steady herself.
Jeremy pushed his sleeves up to his elbows as he marched on. The sight would have been more impressive if he didn’t have Buster yipping and trotting along beside him. Irene wondered where the dog had come from. They’d left him in the car, she thought. But Jeremy just reached down and swept the little dog up and tucked him under his armpit. He strode toward the portal device.
It was only a split second before he vanished into the portal that Irene realized what he was doing. Her mouth dropped open just as he took his last step in Roaring Ridge.
And to her horror, something followed him. Something she only saw in the corner of her eye. Pale gray and long-limbed. She blinked and it was gone.
It was after him. That thing was after Jeremy. He’d been right all along. She had to follow too. She had to kill it. Save him. But she couldn’t trust herself to walk let alone handle her gun. She looked at the robot on the back of her hand. It seemed to be vibrating. There was a crack along its back.
Irene looked up in time to see a man fall back near the portal device and drop to the ground. She tried to run to him, but the force of the portal, the intensity of the radiation, was so great there, that even with the robot on her hand, straining to protect her, she couldn’t get any closer. She stumbled and fell to the ground. She started crawling toward the figure on the ground even as he crawled toward the device and reached up to it. Then suddenly, whatever force was pushing and pulling all around her stopped.
Irene gasped. The portal was closed. A wave of nausea passed through her and she frowned and took deep breaths, inhaling through her nose and exhaling through an “o” in her mouth, telling herself not to throw up. She didn’t dare stand, so she kept crawling over to the man on the ground.
It wasn’t Jeremy.
The man turned to her. He was stunned. His clothes were clean but looked ragged and he had a rough-cut beard. She did not recognize him until he spoke.
“Where am I?” asked Daniel Casey.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.