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Into the Looking Glass: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Thursday, December 23, 2004 00:56 EST



    “Most of the faculty of the university was, presumably, off-campus when the event occurred.” The briefer was from the FBI who was one of a dozen agencies trying to make sense of the “event.” No name had stuck to it, yet. It was not “Pearl Harbor Day” or “9/11” or “the Challenger.” It was just “the event.” The day still hadn’t passed. By tomorrow, or the next day or the day after that some glib newsman would hang a moniker on it that would stick. But for right now, glued to their TV, tying up the phone lines, people just referred to it as the White House Spokesman had as “the event.”

    “Presumably because many of them lived near the campus,” the briefer added.

    “The president, however, lived in Winter Park, outside the blast zone, and one of our agents contacted him. The center of the event, where the…”

    “Globe,” the National Security Advisor prompted. “Or hole, maybe.”

    “Where the globe now…floats…was where the High Energy Physics lab used to rest.”

    “Industrial accident,” the president said then laughed, humorously. He’d by now seen the Defense Department estimates and the “updated” estimates from FEMA, which were climbing higher as the day progressed. “The mother of all industrial accidents. Who?”

    “The president was unwilling to directly point fingers but we believe that is was probably an out-of-control experiment by this man,” he said, flashing a slightly Asian face onto the screen. “Professor Ray Chen, Bachelors degree and Ph. D. in physics from University of California. Third generation American despite his looks. Formerly a professor at MIT. Professor of Advanced Theoretical Physics at University of Central Florida. He apparently moved there, despite a cut in pay and relative prestige of the facility, because of the weather in Boston.”

    “Why not California?” the president asked then waved his hand. “Never mind, irrelevant.”

    “Only slightly Mister President,” the National Security Advisor said. “Thank God it was UCF and not MIT or JPL. We’d be looking at a million dead if it was either of those. And I know, vaguely, about Doctor Chen. But not enough.”

    “Bob,” the president said, turning to the National Science Advisor. The Science Advisor was not normally part of the inner circle but he’d been called in for obvious reasons. His degrees, however, were in molecular biology and immunology; he’d been chosen for his background in biological warfare against the possibility of such attacks from terrorists. He knew he was out of his league.

    “The Security Advisor probably is as good as I am at this, we need a physicist, a good one, that can think on his feet. Soon.”

    “Mr. President?” the Defense Secretary said. “When the High Energy Physics building was noted as the location I told my people to scrounge up a physicist. He’s got background in advanced physics and engineering and holds a TS for work he does with my department. He’s a consultant with one of the defense contractors.”

    “How soon,” the president asked with a smile. “How soon can he be here, that is?”

    “He’s in the building, sir,” the Defense Secretary said, quietly. “I’m not trying to step on toes…”

    “Bring him in,” the president replied.

    “Academic egghead,” the Homeland Security Director muttered, smiling, while they waited. “No offense,” he added to the National Science Advisor.

    “None taken,” the scientist who hadn’t published in seven years said. “What is his background Mr. Secretary?”

    “NASA then defense contractors,” the secretary said, smiling faintly. “PhDs in physics, aeronautical engineering, optics, electronic engineering and some other stuff. Smart guy. Very bright, very sharp, high watt.”

    “Fifty-ish, balding,” the Homeland Security Director added, chuckling. “Fifty pounds overweight, pocket protector, five colors of pens, HP calculator on his hip.”

    The Defense Secretary just smiled.

    The man who entered, passed by the Secret Service, was just below normal height. He had brownish-blonde hair that was slightly tousled and lightly receding on both sides. He walked like a gymnast or a martial artist and if there was an ounce of fat on his body it wasn’t apparent; his arms, which had strangely smooth skin, were corded with muscles. He had light blue eyes and a face that was chiseled and movie star handsome. He was wearing a light green silk shirt and well worn blue-jeans over cowboy boots.

    “Gentlemen and ladies, Doctor William Weaver,” the Defense Secretary said, lightly with some humor in his voice. “Senior Scientist of Columbia Defense.”

    “I’m sorry about how I’m dressed, Mr. President,” the scientist said, sliding into a chair at a gesture from the president. “I didn’t think I was going to need a suit this weekend; they’re all at home.” He had a slight, but noticeable, deep south accent. “Ahm sorry ‘bout how Ahm dressed, Mister Pres’dent.”

    “Not a problem,” the president said, waving his hand. Unlike his predecessor he insisted on suit and tie in the nation’s work and never took his off when he was in the office. He had changed as soon as he got back from Camp David and all the senior staff were in suits or dresses. “Where’s home? You don’t live in Washington?”

    “No, sir, I commute from Huntsville,” Weaver said.

    “We don’t have much for you to go on,” the president said. “But this event this morning appears to have originated at the high energy physics building at the University of Central Florida. We think that it might have been due to something that was being worked on by a physicist named…name?”

    “Ray Chen,” the National Security Advisor said, watching the newcomer. Weaver closed his eyes and grimaced. “Ray Chen from MIT?” he asked, not opening his eyes.

    “Yes,” the NSA said.

    “Well congratu-effing-lations, Ray,” the scientist said to the ceiling. “You just made the science books.” He looked back down at the president and then narrowed his eyes. “I can make some guesses Mr. President. That’s all they are but they are informed guesses. Say about a seven on a scale of one to ten.”

    “That’s good enough for now,” the president said. “How bad is it?”

    “Not nearly as bad as it might have been,” Weaver answered, clearly trying to figure out how to phrase things. “One possibility is that we would all have just disappeared, as if we were never here. Unlikely, but possible. I’m going to have to explain and I’ll try to tell you when I’m getting into completely raw speculation.”

    “Go ahead,” the president said, leaning back.

    “What Ray Chen was working on was the Higgs boson particle,” the scientist said, shaking his head. “First thing to remember is that quantum mechanics can drive a normal man crazy so if it seems like I’m insane just keep in mind that it’s the physics, not me. A Higgs boson is a theoretical particle that is named for the Scottish Physicist Peter Higgs that suggested it as a way to explain some phenomena in high energy and vacuum field physics. Some scientists and especially science fiction writers believe it contains a universe within itself. Me, I always thought it was just reinventing the zero point energy fluctuation energies, or vice versa”

    “You mean a galaxy?” the Defense Secretary asked.

    “No, Mr. Secretary, a universe. All the physics that make up a universe, which won’t be the same as this one, all the math, all the galaxies if they form. Theoretically.”

    “That’s…” the Homeland Director stopped and chuckled. “It isn’t insane, it’s the physics, right?”

    “Yes, sir,” Weaver said, nodding. “The thing is they take really high levels of energy to form. CERN in Switzerland’s been working on them for forever and couldn’t get one. But the other thing is, there’s another theory that when it formed it might just…supersede this universe.”

    “Supercede?” the president said. “As in replace?”

    “More or less, Mr. President,” the physicist said. “That’s why I said: Not as bad as it might have been. We might not have even known anything happened, just all been gone. Moonshots to the Mona Lisa, gone as if we never existed. And anything or anyone else in the universe. Biggest argument against that happening is that it hasn’t and something, somewhere in this big wide universe must have made a Higgs boson before.”

    “I see,” the president said.

    “Or even, and I think we might be onto something here, open a hole into another universe. You see, they don’t last for long, even if you make one. Now, within the universe, it’s all the time of the universe which might be, well, the whole thing. In the couple of nanoseconds they exist in this universe, in that universe they’d have the Big Bang, us making the universe so to speak, universal cooling, star formation, planet formation, the formation of life, contraction and then erasal. Billions and billions of years in that universe compressed to less time than it takes a computer to calculate two plus two in this universe. I know you’re a God Fearing man, Mr. President, but with Higgs boson theory, God might have been Ray Chen pushing a button as he said: ‘Let’s see what happens.’”

    “So you do understand what happened?” the president asked. “If this was a possible result, why would anyone do such a thing?”

    “Well, the recognized negative results were very low order probabilities, Mr. President,” Weaver said. “They’d been studied over and over again and they were dismissed. I dismissed them and I still think I’m right. What would happen if you made a Higgs boson the normal way is a brief flash of light, some secondary particles and then it would be gone. Might not even be able to tell you’d done it. But that’s the normal way which involves great big linear accelerators.”

    “They had one in UCF,” the FBI briefer said, glancing at his notes. “We’d first put the explosion down to an accident with that.”

    “Shows you don’t know high school physics much less this stuff,” Weaver said in an equanimible tone. “Couldn’t get anything like that out of even a big collider much less the four meter or so that they had at UCF. And you can’t get a Higgs boson out of one normally at all. What we really needed was the super conducting supercollider they were building in Texas. That was one of the scheduled experiments. But Ray Chen wanted to make a Higgs boson.”

    “Why, in God’s name?” the president asked. “If it was possible that it would erase all life on earth?”

    “Why did you want your baseball team to win the World Series, Mr. President?” Weaver shot back. “Besides which, forming one and then watching it degrade would tell us a lot about how our universe really works. Understanding physics is the basis to everything, Mr. President. Everything from cellular telephones to the MOAB. And Ray was good at it. Very bright, very crazy in that way you have to be to understand quantum mechanics. And he thought, I’ve read the papers, that there was a way to short-cut to a Higgs boson. I won’t get into what it is, but he thought that under certain conditions it was possible to change physics in a very limited area. And with the physics changed you could make a Higgs boson. And I think that it was his short cut that went wrong.”

    “You think he changed the physics in a small area?” the National Security Advisor asked. “Would that have caused the explosion?”

    “Possibly,” Weaver said. “But probably not. What we have now is some sort of gate. Bear with me here, and I’ll say that this is informed speculation, also known as a wild guess. But what we might have had was a universal inversion; we turned outside-in.”

    “What?” the president said.

    “Think about a balloon, Mr. President,” Weaver said, frowning as he tried to convert very complex theory into reasonable analogies. “You put a hole in the balloon and the air goes out. But you still have the balloon. Now, reach in and pull the balloon inside-out. We were actually the outside, now we’re on the inside.”

    “That’s…” the Homeland Security Director said then stopped.

    “Crazy, right,” Weaver replied. “The point is that if a Higgs boson was formed, it would be a universe. If the conditions were wrong, we’d be sucked into that universe and it would become the ‘outer’ universe. I could imagine some secondary effects would occur.”

    “Such as a nuclear explosion,” the NSA said, dryly.

    “Such as a very high end kinetic energy release,” Bill said with a nod. “Which would look an awful lot like a nuclear explosion. And at this point we get into pure speculation because there is no theory to support what we’re looking at. That big black ball could be a boson, but it does not meet the theory of a Higgs boson particle or its effects. Yes, something came through, that might have been from a Higgs boson universe but, again, it doesn’t fit the theory. Shouldn’t be able to get in or out of the universe. Also, its physics should be different, so different that it would have either died right away or, more likely, exploded. Like, another nuke type explosion but larger as the full mass of the creature converted to energy. Didn’t. What we’re looking at is a gate or a wormhole. Obviously to another planet. Maybe, probably, to a planet in this universe. Might be to the future, probably not. The big question is: is it stable? Is it going to just go away? Is it going to release energy from that planet or universe into this planet? Is it expanding? Contracting? And, most interesting overall, what’s on the other side? Another world? A world of gates maybe? Now I’m into skyballing which is the other side of speculation.”

    “Okay, so we have a gate and no theory as to why it formed?” the National Security Advisor said.

    “No, ma’am, but I do have an idea how it might have been formed, based on some of Ray Chen’s last papers, engineering rather than physics, and we might be able to figure out the physics before long. Once you know something’s possible, especially if you can study it, that’s nine tenths of the battle. Might, probably would, get the same explosion, though.”

    “The explosion we can handle,” the defense secretary said, nodding. “Assuming it occurred somewhere like Los Alamos. On the ranges not in the lab, obviously.”

    “I’m going to say something,” the president intoned. “I do not want this followed up until we have a better handle on it. Not at MIT, not at California, not at Los Alamos. We have enough problems with terrorism. I do not want our cities popping like fireworks. I do not want another quarter of a million dead on our hands.”

    “I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Weaver said, “if I was out of line.”

    “Not at all,” the president said. “I just want that to be made clear.”

    “Dr. Weaver, may I ask a question?” the National Science Advisor said. “Dr. Chen’s papers were open source, were they not?”

    “No, sir, they weren’t,” Weaver said, shaking his head. “If they were, the President’s order would, obviously, be impossible.”

    “Where did…?” the Science Advisor said then stopped at a raised eyebrow from the Defense Secretary.

    “Dr. Weaver, though his association with the Department of Defense, has access to restricted files…”

    “Are you saying this was a DOD project?” the Homeland Security Director asked, his fleshy face turning ruddy in anger. “That it actually was a bomb project?”

    “No,” the Defense Secretary said, definitely. “Let’s try to leave the rumors to the press, okay? Dr. Chen had funding from the National Academy of Sciences,” he said, gesturing at the Science Advisor who blanched. “From at least three non-governmental agencies and from the DOD. Most of it was private funding. But for the DOD grant, and we pass them out for quite a few things, he had to make his reports and projections classified. I’m not sure that there’s no open source but everything in the last year or so is black. I don’t even, frankly, know why or how he got funding from us. But we fund quite a few purely theoretical projects because, sometimes, they pay off.”

    “And it was these classified documents you saw?” the president asked.

    “Yes, sir,” Weaver replied. “I was interested in the physics. If you can change physics in a limited area you might be able to do a lot of things, Mr. President. I hadn’t anticipated this sort of explosion or I would have rung the alarm bells. But there are other applications. Change gravity in a limited area and you’ve got a much better helicopter. Not to mention lightening the load on infantrymen. Change the physics another way and, yes, maybe you get a bang. I’d been thinking about some uses for the people who pay my salary, Mr. President. Besides being fascinated with the math. But I didn’t anticipate this at all.”

    “Okay, so we have a gate and physics we don’t understand but might eventually,” the National Security Advisor said. “And since we don’t understand the physics, we don’t know what the eventual outcome might be.”

    “No, ma’am.”

    “But there’s clearly a world on the other side,” the president said. “Doctor Weaver, would you be willing to go to that world? Assuming it’s survivable for a human?”

    “Sir, it would take a platoon of marines to keep me away from that gate.”

    “Funny you should say that,” the Defense Secretary said with a slight smile.



    “I’m Spec…Sergeant Crichton, sir,” Crichton said, saluting the Navy officer in desert camouflage. “I was the NBC guy that did the initial evaluation.”

    “Lieutenant Glasser,” the SEAL said, returning the salute and then shaking his hand. “I saw the approach; good work.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Crichton said. He knew he was getting a swelled head but didn’t know what to do about it. The battalion commander had passed on good words from the Chief of Staff for God’s Sake. His evaluation, that it wasn’t a nuke, that it wasn’t an asteroid and that it was a gate, had been ahead of FEMA’s, the National Science Advisor and God Knows who else. And now he was being complimented by a SEAL.

    Glasser just nodded his head and looked into the hole. The team had been at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, home of the Special Operations Command, doing a dog and pony show, read briefing, for the incoming commander. It was the sort of shit that SEALs normally managed to avoid but the new SOCOM commander was a Green Beanie, Army Special Forces, Green Berets, who had limited experience in commanding or managing SEALs or most of the other forces that fell under his command. The team had been chosen because it was in country, not doing anything important and it had a wide range of experience from Command Master Chief Schmidt, who had been a SEAL since Christ was a corporal and had been in every land and sea action since Grenada, to Seaman First Class Sanson who still didn’t have the Coronado sand out of his boots.

    And lo and behold they never even got around to shining those same boots before they were loaded in vans and, preceded and followed by a police escort doing about a hundred and eighty, driven up to Orlando and dropped off in a howling wasteland that looked suspiciously like Beirut. They’d caught just enough on the tube to have some idea what was going on but there wasn’t much to see at the moment except a bunch of National Guardsmen standing around drinking coffee under klieg lights.

    That and the globe.

    “If there’s a penetration of the globe, from our side that is, we’re tasked to do it,” Glasser said. “There’s no SOP for this; we’re into science fiction. Do you read science fiction?”

    Crichton wasn’t sure how to answer; most military officers were death on SF. But Glasser didn’t seem to mind.

    “I used to,” the lieutenant mused. “Used to read a lot. I’m dead worried about biological or chemical contamination from that side. What happened to that bug?”

    “Well, sir, it’s two bugs now,” Crichton answered, gulping. “Sergeant Grant and I got them both up out of the hole. We wore our protective gear and decontaminated afterwards.”

    “Decon foam might not work on bugs from another world,” Glasser pointed out.

    “As I said, no SOP.”

    “Yes, sir, but we also used bleach,” Crichton said, stubbornly. “Sir, if it can stand up to bleach, I don’t think it can bond to anything in this world.”

    “Where are the bugs?” the SEAL said, ignoring the comment.

    “The sergeant and I trussed them up with duct tape and then dumped them in the back of a Humvee with all the windows rolled up and big signs on it not to open it. But they’re both dead, sir. They just stopped twitching after a while.”

    “I guess something on this side is poisonous to them,” Glasser said. “Which is the first good news I’ve had today. And bad, for that matter, it doesn’t mean the other side isn’t poisonous. Any idea what?”

    “No, sir,” Crichton responded. “They were moving fine and strong as bejeezus. Sergeant Grant helped me because he usually works in an alligator farm wrestling gators. And it took both of us on them to get the tape on them. They didn’t attack us or anything but it was like riding an elephant if you know what I mean; they just didn’t seem to feel the weight even the smaller one. If I’d make a guess, sir, I’d say that it’s a higher gravity world on the far side and that something in our air, carbon dioxide or oxygen, is probably what killed them. Too high or low of oxygen or too high carbon dioxide. Just a wild-ass guess, sir. I’ve gone up by the globe and taken readings but the instruments I’ve got don’t’ show anything harmful coming out of it.”

    “You do read science fiction,” the lieutenant said, smiling at him. “Crichton, right?”

    “Yes, sir. I did. Still do for that matter when I’ve got the time.”

    “My boys can kill anything they can see,” the SEAL said, reflectively. “They can move like lightning, go anywhere, do anything. But with the exception of the Command Master Chief, who reads Starship Troopers once ritually before every overseas assignment, I don’t think any of them have ever read an SF novel. Or thought about how an alien world could be different. Comments?”

    “You’d better brief them carefully, sir.”

    “That is we, sergeant. We had better brief them carefully. Believe it or not, SEALs are willing to listen to people who know what they are talking about. And, also contrary to popular opinion, they’re smart. Which may matter one hell of a lot. Or not at all.”



    Orlando International Airport’s call-sign was MCO, which stood for McCoy. It had previously been McCoy Air Force Base back when the security of the United States against the Soviet nuclear arsenal rested in Mutual Assured Destruction and intercontinental bombers were one leg of the triad that assured the Mutual. As Orlando grew in size and importance from a small cow town with a few defense firms to an entertainment and research center, MCO had grown as well, adding flights, adding congestion and eventually adding runways. But the main runways were the same that had been laid down in the 1950s and they were more than adequate to handle an F-15. Which was how Dr. Weaver arrived after a flight from Andrews Air Force Base he would remember for some time.

    FAA regulations prohibited military jets from breaking the sound barrier over inhabited areas. Jets which were supersonic, therefore, were limited to training over water or uninhabited desert areas.

    Bill Weaver had flown in F-15s before, including aerobatics to try to make him sick. They hadn’t. But this was radically different. The F-15, carrying conformal wing tanks, had climbed for altitude at what was called “maximum military thrust.” Since an F-15 is one of the very few aircraft in the world that has more thrust than mass, that meant virtually straight up for a minute and a half. It was very much what he imagined being in the shuttle would be like, if you were able to look around in every direction. When it reached its optimum altitude, 65,000 feet, it had turned south and the pilot had pushed the afterburners to full. From that high it is normally hard to notice the change in motion relative to the ground at all. Just as high jets look as they are moving slow from the ground, from the air the ground itself tends to look stationary. Not at darned near Mach Three. It had taken thirty minutes from when the pilot turned south to when he flared out for a landing in Orlando. And the earth, which from their altitude had a very distinct roundness to it, looked as if it had shifted rotation from west-east to north-south. Even at their height Bill was pretty sure they’d left a string of broken windows behind them.

    There had been very little conversation. Ground crewmen had helped him into a G suit, hooked him up, explained the two switches he was permitted to touch, pointed out the ejection system which he was not permitted to touch except in obvious circumstances and climbed out. The pilot had, if anything, less to say.

    “Can I ask who you are?” the pilot, a lieutenant colonel, said when they reached cruising altitude and the bone crushing acceleration had eased off.

    “I’m an academic egghead,” Bill said, glorying in the view out the window. The sun was down in the west on the ground but they were still in sunlight at altitude. Despite that they were high enough that the sky was purple and he could see stars. It was as close as he’d ever been to space, the one place he’d wanted to go since he was a kid.

    “Pull the other one,” the pilot said.

    “No, really, they’re sending me down to look at this thing in Orlando. I’m a physicist.”

    “I figured that they weren’t sending you to Disney World, but you don’t look like any academic I’ve ever seen.”

    “You need to hang out at the Hooters in Huntsville more often.”

    Bill had heard it before. If you had a Southern accent and looked like a track and field coach everyone assumed you were a jock. But at the level of physics which was his specialty, you could get as much “work” done working out, or mountain biking, or SCUBA diving, or rock climbing, as you could sitting in a darkened office with the door looked and your clothes off contemplating your navel. Which was what one academic of his acquaintance swore by. It was all in the head until it came time to sit down and start drawing equations, which if you’d done the head work in advance practically drew themselves. And if you grew up with a body that only required two hours of sleep a night, a mind like an adding machine and the energy level of a ferret on a pixie stick, you had to find some way to burn off the energy, physical and mental. So he mountain biked, consulted with the DOD, went to national level Wah Lum Kung-Fu tournaments and, occasionally, stood in front of a white board for a few hours and then stayed up for three days writing a thirty thousand word paper which he sent off to the National Journal of Physics and Science serene in the knowledge that it would both pass peer review and be published.

    Many of his friends, and most of his colleagues, referred to him jokingly as a rat bastard.

    He’d recently considered going back to grad school to polish off another PhD. The only question was in what. Asshole physics, astrophysics to the uninitiated, was out. The whole field was filled with eggheads that couldn’t tell reality from fantasy and most of them put their fantasies squarely on the liberal side of the political divide. Maybe atomic level engineering, but the only school that had a department, yet, was MIT. Bleck. Among other oddities in his field, Weaver was a staunch and outspoken political conservative of a seriously military bent. A year, about what it would take despite the “recommended” three years, in the People’s Republic of Massachusetts was more than he could stand.

    Maybe genetics or molecular biology, branch out a little.

    But that had been yesterday, before “the event.” If there wasn’t a whole new branch of physics about to open up, he didn’t have a nose like a hound dog. And he was in, practically, on the ground floor.

    The math was probably going to kick his ass, though. At certain levels even the top flight physicists sometimes had to resort to pure math guys. Ray Chen, for example, had been a go-to man for gauge boson and multidimensional field equations but even he bowed his head a few times and consulted with a pure mathematician in Britain. What was his name? Gonzales? Something like that. Bill was coming up with a mental list of people he might need to consult with when he realized the plane was already flaring out to land. It had hardly banked at all and done a power-on approach. They must have cleared every other plane out of the way for the fighter. The pilot flared out, hit reverse thrusters and turned off the runway so hard it seemed as if they were going to fall over.

    “In a hurry, colonel?” Bill asked.

    “Very,” the pilot replied. “I got two in-flight requests for ETA. Somebody wants you pronto.”

    “Well, thanks for the ride, hope we can do it again some time.” There were soldiers waiting for the plane who obviously had no idea how to unhook all the umbilicals and straps that held him in the seat. The pilot unstrapped and got him unhooked then he clambered out of the plane and onto the runway.

    “Mr. Weaver?” one of the soldiers said. “I’m Sergeant Garcia, if you’ll come this way?”

    “Can I get out of the flight suit?” Bill asked, unzipping same. He reached up and managed to get open the small compartment he had seen his bag disappear into. He stuffed the G suit into the compartment and retrieved the backpack then headed to the waiting Humvee.

    “I understand you know what’s going on here,” the sergeant said as he climbed in as driver. The other soldier climbed in the back.

    “No,” Bill replied. “But I understand what might have happened, somewhat, and I’ve got some theories about what is happening and what might happen. And I know some of the questions to ask. Other than that, I’m in the dark.” The sergeant laughed and shook his head. “Can you explain it in small words?”

    “Not unless you know what a Higgs boson particle is,” Bill said, aware that he was going to have to explain it over and over again.

    “A theoretical particle in quantum mechanics that can contain a universe,” the sergeant replied. “But you can’t form them unless you’ve got a really big super-collider. Right?”

    “Right,” Bill said, looking at the sergeant in surprise. “Did somebody call ahead?”

    “No,” the sergeant replied, making a turn onto the Greenway. For once it was nearly empty of traffic. He took the Sunpass lane despite not having a transponder. “I was working on my masters in physics and then things went awry. Optics, actually.”

    “I’ve got a PhD in optics,” Bill said. “And physics for that matter.”

    “Sorry, Doctor, I didn’t know that,” the sergeant said, wincing.

    “I don’t make everybody call me Doctor, sergeant,” Bill said, grinning. “I’m just an overeducated redneck, not some soi distante academic. So how’d you end up in the National Guard?”

    “Long story,” the sergeant replied. After a long moment he shrugged. “I was working on my masters, working with blue-light lasers. One of my classes I had to have a peer reviewed paper published. You know the routine.”


    “Didn’t have my experiments in lasers as far along as I wanted so I made the mistake of branching out. I got tired of everybody mouthing off about nuclear power so I did a comparative study of radioactive output from the Turkey Creek nuclear power plant vs. the big coal plant east of Orlando.”

    “Forgone conclusion,” Weaver grunted. “Coal’s nasty stuff.”

    “I knew that and you know that, but I’d done the research and there wasn’t a single peer reviewed comparative.”

    “None?” Weaver said, surprised.

    “Not one. So I did the tests, no detectable radiation outside of the plant itself for Turkey Creek and enough to cook a chicken in the tailings of the coal plant, which were, by the way, blowing into a nearby stream, and submitted it. To Physics. Got a response in a month. The paper was rejected for peer review and was not accepted for publication. My credentials were in optics, not nuclear physics.”

    “That’s…odd,” Bill said. “I smell a fish.”

    “So did I. Especially when I was summarily dropped from the master’s program shortly afterwards. Nobody would talk to me except one of my professors, who made me swear not to say who it was or make a stink. Not that it would do me any good. Know the senior senator from West Virginia?”

    “Oh, no,” Weaver said, shutting his eyes. “King Coal.”

    “You got it. He apparently made a deal all the way back in the 1960s. Florida got NASA stuff but to power it they had to build a coal fired power plant. And keep it running. He protects coal like it was his own personal child, which in a way I suppose it is. Anyway, a lowly master’s candidate had attracted the personal ire of a senior senator. Said master’s candidate needed to go away now. Please, don’t bother submitting at other institutes of higher learning. You are the weakest link. Goodbye.”

    “I hate politics,” Weaver said then shrugged. “But that’s why the Huntsville has the Redstone Arsenal and Houston has the Space Center. Since I got my education because of the former, I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. But, yeah, that’s a shitty story. On the other hand, it’s good for me.”


    “Well, we’re going to have to measure this thing and I’ve got my very own soldier who can handle laser equipment. That’s going to help.”

    “Okay,” the sergeant said, chuckling. “Do I get a pay increase?”

    “Doubt it,” Bill admitted. “But we’ll see. Ever thought about going to other planets?”

    “You’ll get me through that thing kicking and screaming,” the sergeant admitted. “I saw those bugs. I don’t want to be on any planet that has them on it. Worse than arachnophobia. I just wanted to crawl up and scream. I don’t know how Crichton and Grant could stand to touch them.”

    “Touch them? What about contamination?”

    “Wait until we get there, if you don’t mind, Doctor, sir,” the sergeant said. He had turned off onto the ramp to University boulevard. They had been waved through a checkpoint and the ramp had been roughly cleared of rubble. But it was still a rough ride.

    University Boulevard had been a four lane highway connected to numerous side roads and residential communities. One lane had been partially cleared by an army of civilian bulldozers and military and a few emergency vehicles now picked their way down that single cleared lane. The suburbs on either side had been smashed, as if from a strong wind, and as they proceeded eastward it got worse until they entered an area which had been wiped clean of all vegetation except some burned stubby grasses and was devoid of anything but foundations. Bill shook his head as he mentally counted up the human life that had been erased in a bare moment. Families, children, dogs, cats, fish, birds in the trees, the trees themselves, gone. It was shocking and horrifying and, after a while, so overwhelming that his mind just tuned it out.

    “I’m glad our company got detailed to secure the site,” Garcia said, noticing his glances at the devastation.


    “The other companies around have been pulled in for search and rescue.”



    Crichton had finally gotten a chance to take off his protective gear and grab some food. Battalion had gone to the Dominos pizza on Kirkman Rd, one of the largest in the nation, and gotten pizza for Charlie Company at materials cost from the owner. By the time Crichton got a slice all that was left was all the way and it was cold. But it was food and he realized as he bit into the slice that it was the first food he’d had since a chicken biscuit for breakfast. He’d found a bit of rubble, the foundation for one of the university buildings, and was contemplating the activity around the Hole when a small voice said: “Excuse me.”

    He turned around and, right at the edge of the light from the kliegs, a small child, a girl by her clothing and hair, was standing watching him. In her arms was what looked like a stuffed animal, probably some sort of “monster” animal. At least it looked stuffed until it climbed up her clothes and perched on her shoulder.

    “Hello,” he said as calmly as he could. “Where did you come from.”

    “Home,” the girl said. “I’m hungry.”

    “What’s your name little girl?”

    “Mimi Jones, 12138 Mendel Road, Orlando, Florida, 32826.”

    “Are you lost?” he asked. He wondered where Mendel Road was and wondered who was going to hook this girl up with her parents, assuming they were alive. She seemed uninjured, so there was no way that she had been in the explosion. But there wasn’t anything standing for a kilometer around the explosion. If she had come from outside the explosion area then she’d walked a long way.

    “Yes,” she said. “I couldn’t find my house or my mommy. And mommy said I shouldn’t talk to strangers but she said that soldiers were okay one time when we were at the mall.”

    “Well, there’s a policeman here,” Crichton said, standing up. “He’ll probably be able to find your mommy. And we’ll get you something to eat. Come on.” He wanted to ask what that thing on her shoulder was but he thought it might be a good idea to wait until he got her into the light and got a better look at it. It might be one of those robotic toys that were turning up these days. In the light the thing was no better. It was almost entirely fur except for some stubby and goofy looking legs, there seemed to be about ten spaced equilaterally around its body. And it didn’t seem to be threatening anything, just sitting on her shoulder.

    A command truck had been parked at the edge of the light zone and he led the girl over to the group that was standing around at the back. Weaver was there and the SEAL commander along with a sergeant from Orange County Sheriff’s that had been sent over as a liaison. There was also a woman he hadn’t seen before, a tall brunette, just on the far side of chunky, with long brown hair. She was dressed in jeans and a flannel work shirt.

    “Hi,” he said when he got to the group. “This little girl just wandered up to me. I think she’s from in the TD area. She says her name is Mimi.”

    “Hello, Mimi,” the woman said, squatting down in front of the girl. “I’m Doctor McBain. I’m not a doctor like you probably know, I’m what’s called a biologist. I study plants and animals. This is Doctor Weaver, he studies stars and stuff. What’s your name? Do you know your address?”

    “Mimi Jones, 12138 Mendel Road, Orlando, Florida, 32826,” the girl recited again.

    “And what’s that on your shoulder?” McBain asked, eyeing it warily.

    “That’s my friend,” Mimi said, patting the thing. “His name is Tuffy.”

    “Do you know where your mommy is?” the biologist said.

    “No, I was watching Power Puff girls and then I woke up in the dark. I was scared but Tuffy told me it would be okay and then I walked to the lights. I’m hungry.”

    “Tuffy told you?” Weaver said, squatting down by her also.

    “Kinda,” the girl said and giggled. “He doesn’t talk, he doesn’t have a mouth like us. But I know what he means. I was really scared but he made me be brave and told me to go to the lights and get some food. I’m hungry.”

    “We’re out of pizza,” Weaver said, waving at the SEAL officer. “Would you like some nice MREs?”

    “I dunno,” the girl admitted. “I don’t like peas, though.”

    “No peas,” Weaver said as the SEAL, shaking his head, went to get some MREs.

    “Doctor Weaver,” the cop said, coming over and squatting down with the others.

    “That’s got to be impossible.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Were you at home, Mimi?” the deputy asked, softly. “When you fell asleep that is?”

    “Yes,” Mimi said.

    “That’s impossible,” the cop repeated. “Mendel is about three blocks from here.”

    “Did you have a basement, Mimi?” Weaver asked. “Were you in the basement?”

    “No,” she answered. “We had an apartment. On the second floor. I used to throw water balloons at Manuel downstairs until mommy found out what I was doing with them and made me stop.”

    “That’s really impossible,” the cop said. “Where were you, really, Mimi?” Weaver didn’t have children but he did know that they would make things up. However, there was no logic to Mimi lying and he felt she wasn’t.

    “I don’t think she’s lying, sergeant,” he said, quietly. “And do me a favor, don’t bully her on it. I don’t want her, or that thing, agitated.”

    “She can’t have come from Mendel, Dr. Weaver,” the deputy protested. “It’s gone.”

    “Quod erat demonstratum,” the physicist answered. “That which is demonstrated. Where did she come from, then? Everything for a half a mile in every direction is gone. She’s six; there’s only so far she could have walked. Ergo, she came from somewhere she could not have and Mendel is only one of many equally implausible possibilities.”

    “So how did she survive?” the cop asked, angrily.

    “I don’t know,” Weaver said, honestly.

    “Some sort of toroidal effect?” McBain asked.

    “Nope,” the physicist answered. “If there was a minimal effect toroid, and it doesn’t look like there was, it still would have taken out an upstairs apartment. And she wouldn’t be unscratched. Look, none of this is making sense according to standard theory so I’d have to go out on a limb and say that another gate opened and she fell in it as the blast front came across. Problem being even if it opened under her she wouldn’t have had time to fall.”

    “Opened up on her?” the woman asked. “Then she fell out after the blast had passed?”

    “Maybe,” Weaver shrugged. “Or maybe Tuffy saved her.”

    “That’s what happened,” Mimi said, stoutly. “Tuffy told me he saved me.”

    “Well, then, that’s the answer,” Weaver said, smiling. “Problem solved.”

    “Not all of them,” the deputy said. “We’re supposed to isolate any ET stuff. And if that’s not an ET I don’t know what is. It could be carrying a plague for all we know. And she won’t be able to take it to a shelter.”

    “And it doesn’t explain how it saved her,” McBain pointed out.

    “The point is, we need to isolate that thing,” the deputy said. “And her, come to think of it. Mimi, I’m sorry but you’re going to have to give me Tuffy,” the cop continued, pulling out a pair of rubber gloves.

    “I won’t,” Mimi said, stubbornly. “Tufy’s my friend and he saved me. You’re not going to take him away and put him to sleep.”

    “We won’t put him to sleep, child,” the woman said. “But he might be carrying germs. We have to make sure he’s safe.”

    “He’s not,” Mimi said. “He told me he’s safe.”

    “Well, you still have to give him to me, Mimi,” the deputy said, reaching for the creature.

    “No!” Mimi answered, backing up. “I won’t give him to you. Leave me alone! You’re a bad man!”

    “Mimi…” Weaver said, just as the thing reared up. He caught a glimpse of what might have been a mouth and then two of the thing’s legs extended enormously, forming or extending claws at the end. The claws caught the deputy in his upper arm, just below where it was protected by body armor. There was a sizzling sound and the deputy was flung back to shudder on the ground.

    Weaver rolled up and back into a combat stance as the woman stood up and backed away as well. The deputy was shaking from head to foot and then stopped. He was still breathing, though.

    “Medic!” Glasser called, dropping the MRE packet he had just carried over and grabbing the deputy. He dragged him to the rear of the command Humvee and then drew his sidearm.

    “Mimi,” Weaver said, as calmly as he could. “Tell Tuffy we’re not going to try to take him away, okay?”

    “Okay,” Mimi said, turning her head and murmuring at the thing. “He says the man will be okay.”

    “Okay,” the physicist replied.

    “It looks like he’s been tasered,” Glasser said, walking over with the MRE packet. “Mimi, this is chicken ala king. It’s got some peas in it, sorry, but it’s one of the best ones we have. I heated it up for you.” He pulled a folding knife out and slit the top of the MRE packet then opened it up and carefully handed it to her along with a spork.

    Mimi looked at the contents with the doubtful indecision millions of soldiers around the world understood then poked at the contents. She spooned some of the mess up and tasted it then picked at it greedily, pulling out the chicken bits. As she did “Tuffy” climbed down her chest and, holding onto the front of her shirt, extended its legs to fish into the contents. It seemed to be rooting through for vegetables. Since the girl was only eating the meat it was a fair apportionment. Weaver watched in amazement as the thing fished up the bits in the sauce, hooked on small claws, transferring them to its underside where they were, presumably, consumed.

    “Mimi,” the biologist suddenly said with a tone of horror. “I just realized something. That might not be good for Tuffy.”

    “Tuffy says it’s okay,” the girl said around a mouthful of vegetables. “He said that he can uh-just his fizz-ee-o-logical in-com-pat-ib-ility.” She clearly didn’t know what it meant or care.

    “Holy shit,” Weaver muttered.

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