“Is it moving?” Quinn asked the helicopter pilot. He had to shout into his headset to be heard over the noise. It was a small copter, and the blades were not far above the wide canopy.
“Outward, about 1500 meters an hour in all directions,” the man shouted back. “More toward the east.”
Quinn moved into the second seat to look out the east-facing side. The dark sky overhead threatened rain, which was already falling in sheets near the horizon, obscuring what lay beyond. Below them, a cluster of police cruisers and firetrucks flashed their lights at a barricade, keeping people at bay.
“And it was first reported this morning?” Quinn asked.
“That’s what they told me, but you’d have to confirm that with HQ.”
Quinn nodded and moved back into the other seat. From that height, the anomaly seemed like the iris of a massive human eye. A bulbous outer mass, like semi-metallic charcoal, traced a furrowed oval almost two miles across at its widest point. It sloped down quickly at its inner edge and dissipated to a web of interconnected strands, like heavy vines, that grew ever more sparse until they all but disappeared amid the colorless landscape of the interior. At first glance, everything inside the massive oval seemed like it had been burned. But it hadn’t. The sparse trees still had leaves. Tufts of grass sprouted along a creek bed. But all of it was the color of graphite, which made it hard to discern any detail.
“Can we get closer?” Quinn asked.
“Sorry.” The pilot shook his head. “No can do.”
“And we don’t know where it started?”
The pilot simply pointed. Since the anomaly’s growth was uneven, there was no clear starting point. Anywhere inside roughly six square miles of sparsely wooded rural landscape could’ve been the point of origin—or none, Quinn realized, if it had migrated from somewhere else in the night.
“Comm check,” a technician from the base said over the radio. Her voice crackled with static.
“Comms holding,” the pilot replied.
“Problem with the radio?” Quinn shouted over the staccato chatter of the blades.
“It’s slightly magnetic. Messes with the navigation and radio. I have orders—this is as low as we go.”
Quinn tried to hide his frustration. “Then what exactly was I supposed to see?”
“That.” The pilot pointed.
To the left, in the middle of a field far inside the anomaly, several jagged spires grew at odd angles from a central point. Immediately after noticing them, Quinn spotted several more, smaller structures that his eyes had mistaken for dead trees.
“What are they?” he asked, but the pilot only shrugged.
Quinn raised his phone and used the camera to zoom. The motion of the helicopter made it hard to focus, but he was able to get a closer view. The dark, angular spires were very thin and grew at a 60-degree angle, zigzagging in a kind of saw-blade pattern as they radiated up and out from a central point on the ground. Although the lines occasionally merged and separated, they kept moving outward, forming a basic crystal shape. Each “shard” appeared to be flat, but perpendicular to the ground, like a knife—as if giant shaking hands had traced invisible crystals in the air.
“Used to be a cell tower there,” the pilot told him.
“Used to be? What happened to it?”
The man shrugged, and the two sat quietly for a moment as the helicopter flew a thousand feet over the foliage. Toward the southeast horizon, sheets of rain fell like drapes, but it was moving off and Quinn could just make out the gray silhouette of high-tension power lines, beyond which was a smattering of houses and single-story structures.
“You said it’s moving faster to the east?”
The pilot nodded.
“How long before it reaches the town?”
“At this rate, about four hours.”
“Not much time, then. Better take us down.”
“Hold on,” the man objected as the helicopter continued in its flight around the massive oval. “You haven’t seen it yet.”
“Just watch. Shouldn’t be long now.” The pilot pointed to a digital timer, which was counting down the last few seconds in red digits.
Quinn turned back to the window and examined flat tendrils of the charcoal-colored anomaly again. Parts of it reflected light from the bleak, overcast sky with a faint rainbow sheen, like a film of oil on water.
Suddenly, the entire surface of the circular outer mass lifted in spikes, like fine scales, which swayed back and forth. Then it shook. Ripples ran down the entire length as static burst over the radio and the lights inside the helicopter flickered. The bulbous anomaly surged outward. And that was it.
The pilot smiled back at Quinn.
“Jesus.” He swallowed dry. “What the heck was that?”
“I thought that’s why you guys were here,” the man joked.
The helicopter banked hard to return, and Quinn had to press his hand to the low canopy to brace himself. As they flew over a lonesome house on a rural road, he watched a scared family being evacuated into the back of a white van. A child clutching a colorful toy looked up at the helicopter and turned to watch until it was out of sight. Quinn saw a large propane tank in the back yard. It would soon be swallowed, along with the family’s possessions—whatever couldn’t fit in their hands.
The chopper landed in a clearing outside a cluster of tents and vehicles that served as a temporary crisis center. The makeshift headquarters stood on a small rise overlooking one part of the anomaly’s path, along with the nearby town. State police and firemen mixed with federal agents from the FBI and FEMA, who glanced at Quinn as he passed. A few did a double-take and smirked at his uniform.
He pulled out his phone and asked Ezra where he was.
STILL ABOUT 20 MIN AWAY
WHY SO LONG?
There was a long gap.
I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ANSWER THAT
I DIDN’T STOP
A pair of military helicopters burst over a rise and flew low over the encampment on their way to the anomaly. Quinn watched them go, as the child had done, before making his way to the mobile HQ at the far edge of the camp, where it sat overlooking an open field bordering the high-tension lines. A full-bird colonel and her two lieutenants stepped out, and Quinn waited for them to leave before making his way up the steps. They didn’t even look at him.
Inside, Special Agent Roger Erving of the FBI stared grimly at a bank of screens. Quinn stopped when he saw him. His old boss turned and noticed Quinn’s uniform, and for a moment neither man spoke. Quinn looked down at his clothes. The arms and upper chest were a very pale burnt yellow. The rest was dark blue-gray, except for a matching faint yellow stripe that ran down the pant legs. The material’s thick weave was supposed to be airtight, fire-retardant, and tear- and acid-resistant, and it looked like it. It was stiff and unflattering. To announce the new agency’s presence, the letters SCD were emblazoned boldly on the back.
Erving held out his hand. “Surprised to see me, Agent Quinn?”
He was shorter than Quinn remembered, but no less imposing for it. His hands were large for his body, and he had a deep baritone that Nio had described as a jazz DJ’s.
“No, sir,” Quinn said, reverting reflexively to the only word he had ever used to address the man. “Just wondering how you got here so quick.”
Special Agent Erving was based out of New York and oversaw the Bureau’s high-profile cases. Quinn’s career at the FBI hadn’t been remarkable enough to earn him such a prestigious placement. He’d been based out of Minneapolis and was only seconded to Erving’s team as a kind of babysitter. Still, in their short time working together, Quinn had developed considerable respect for the man.
“It’s molting again,” the Asian woman behind Erving warned. She had her hair pulled in a pony tail and wore a jacket that said FEMA.
On the main screen, the border of the anomaly rose in spikes again. Then it shuddered and jolted forward.
“Molting?” Quinn asked.
“That’s what we call it,” the woman explained. Her name tag said Nguyen. “The good news is, the time between episodes is gradually increasing. We think it might be slowing. You the guy from Science Control?”
“Orlando Quinn. Crimes Division.” He stuck out a hand but the woman didn’t bother.
“Do we think this was a crime?”
“Incident Commander Nguyen has operational authority,” Erving told him.
“Have you been able to get a sample?”
Nguyen smiled wryly. “Tried.”
“All our probes get eaten.”
Erving nodded as if to confirm the tale. “Everything except the glass. So far, all we know is that it’s slightly magnetic. And it’s growing.”
“What about knocking a piece off somehow?”
“Tried it,” Nguyen said. “We whacked it, torched it. The Bureau even shot it.”
“The surface is like kinetic sand,” Erving explained. “Bullets make a brief dent but then just get absorbed and everything goes back to how it was.”
“And the blowtorch?” Quinn asked.
Special Agent Erving shook his head in the negative. “It’s at least partially metallic. Seems to disperse heat throughout its mass.”
“So what you’re saying is we have nothing.”
“One of our pilots noted it’s eating the litter off the ground. There were some old washing machines in a ditch that are apparently no longer there.”
“Environmental group, maybe? Returning the land to its natural state?”
“That’s why the Bureau is here,” Nguyen drolled. “But so far, we have no evidence this is a terrorist act.”
“What happens when it reaches the high-tension lines?”
“It’s not the lines we’re worried about. It’s the hydroelectric plant.” She pointed to a map on a screen. “Here. Four miles down the road. There are ten thousand homes, several hundred businesses, five hospitals, and a bunch of child care and nursing facilities in the flood plain. If the dam goes, a whole lot of people are going to lose everything. And that’s assuming they can all be evacuated safely and on time.”
In the brief moment of silence that followed, it was clear that no one in the narrow room expected such a large-scale evacuation to come off without incident.
“So that’s your line in the sand,” Quinn said.
“What’s the plan?”
“As it happens,” Erving interjected, “the plant that builds the MOAB-C is in McAlester, Oklahoma, about an hour away by air. The National Guard have a C-130 ready to go.”
“You’re gonna blow it up?”
“Part of it,” Nguyen said. “It’s already larger than the blast radius of any conventional weapon. But if we’re lucky, we might be able to divert it away from the dam.”
That explained the military choppers. Quinn thought about the child he saw clutching the toy.
“How many houses in the blast area?”
“Too many,” Erving said, turning away.
“We’re evacuating now,” Nguyen added quickly.
“What about the interior?” Quinn asked. “Do we know it’s clear? Have we checked for missing persons?”
“That could take hours. There isn’t time.”
“So you’re just going to drop a bomb?”
“No. What we’re going to do is prevent the dam from failing.”
“Word is,” Erving said calmly, “you all are better equipped to analyze this kind of thing.”
He meant the Crimes Division’s “toys,” as Kripke called them, most of which were prototypes.
“Equipped or not,” Quinn said, “we can’t do anything from here.”
Nguyen crossed her arms. “What are you suggesting?”
“I’m saying someone’s gotta go in there, make sure your drop zone is clear, and try to get a sample so we can figure out what we’re dealing with.”
“In case you didn’t notice,” she replied in terse syllables, “there isn’t enough time between pulses for an air drop. Or an extraction. I’m not going to lose any more aircraft.”
“We lost three drones already,” Erving explained.
Quinn shrugged. “Have to find another way in, then.”
“How?” Nguyen scoffed. “We have a viable plan. I’m not going to jeopardize—”
“You’re already jeopardizing! With all due respect, ma’am, for all you know, there could be half a dozen people trapped in there. We owe it to these people to look.”
“We owe it to the tens of thousands more in that flood plain to stop this thing here, while we still can.”
“I’m not asking to change the plan, Commander. Just give us as long as you can. That thing is, what, three, four hours from the town? If we don’t find anything—”
“I’m sorry. It’s a little late for that.”
“And why is that?” Quinn asked sarcastically. “Why weren’t we called earlier?”
Neither Nguyen nor Erving answered. Instead, the Incident Commander pointed toward the anomaly.
“That border is two meters high. It stretches ten meters back. How do you plan to get in without touching it? Pole vault?”
“I might have a way.”
“And what happens if you get trapped? Before we lost contact, the drone footage suggested that that web, or whatever it is, is constantly shifting. Without radio communication, we’ll have no way to know if you’re safe. We’re 30 minutes from final evac. If we drop within the hour, we still have time for another shot if something goes wrong.”
“So don’t wait,” Quinn said. “Get a second plane in the air.”
“You don’t get it. You’re not going in there, Agent Quinn. I’m sorry. That’s final.”
“I don’t think that’s your call,” Erving interjected.
Nguyen looked confused.
“The new law is very clear,” Erving explained. “As subject matter experts, the SCA takes lead on any unknown technological threats, same as the CDC has point on pathogens. Or are you gonna try to tell me that thing’s natural?”
Nguyen’s lips pursed. “It was you that called them. Wasn’t it?”
Quinn looked to Erving for a reaction, but the man was cool.
“This kind of thing is exactly why that law was passed.”
“How long can you give me?” Quinn asked.
“You can’t be serious,” Nguyen objected. “What is it with you guys and your macho bullshit?”
“Commander Nguyen is not wrong that we’re cutting this tight,” Erving said softly. “Anything more than two hours and we’re in jeopardy.”
“Two hours.” Quinn sighed. “I don’t suppose you wanna tell me why we’re here with only two hours to spare?”
Erving was stone-faced.
“Fine. You can explain it to Dr. Chang later.”
Incident Commander Nguyen turned to the window behind them, which was partially obstructed by a tall antenna. “Where’s the rest of your team, Agent Quinn? Or are you going in by yourself?”
It was a fair question, but since Quinn didn’t have an answer, he kept his jaw clenched and exited the mobile command center. He pulled his phone outside, just as Erving called his name from the door.
“You weren’t supposed to be here at all,” he said grimly.
Quinn nodded. “Understood.”
Then he shut it.
A woman with a clipboard and a FEMA jacket hurried past Quinn and into an open-sided tent full of emergency kits. Each was packed inside a small red case with a shoulder strap.
“Excuse me,” Quinn called. “What are those for?”
There were stacks of them.
“For the evacuees. Why?”
Quinn stepped inside the tent and unzipped one of the red bags. He pulled out one of two bottles of water.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
“I need to borrow one of these,” he said.
“Who are you?”
Quinn saw a pallet of sandbags on the far side of the mobile HQ. “And one of those.” He pointed.
“Hold on. What agency are you from?”
But he was already walking away. He tore the sandbag open on the far side of a parking lot and let its dry contents fall into an empty water bottle. As it filled, he heard a slight peep behind him and turned to see a fancy self-driving rental car pull to a stop next to an ambulance. Ezra was on his phone in the back seat. His soft face looked all of twelve years old.
“Where’s your uniform?” Quinn asked as the skinny kid got out. He was still in his street clothes.
“Oh. I didn’t know if that was one of those things that we didn’t really—”
“Put it on,” Quinn ordered as he opened the ambulance. No was one inside, and he grabbed a roll of white surgical tape.
When he stepped out, he saw the woman with the clipboard talking to her supervisor. They were looking at him.
“Actually,” Quinn said, “go ask them for directions first.”
“You can do that, right?” Quinn asked as he loaded everything into the soft-sided red case.
“Yes. It’s just. I don’t know where we’re going.”
“We need the quickest route to the far side of the anomaly. To the train tracks. That thing’s gonna cross a drainage tunnel sometime in the next thirty minutes or so.”
“Tunnel?” Ezra waited.
“I saw it from the air.” Quinn tossed the bag over his shoulder and opened the trunk.
Inside was the reason Ezra had to escort the rental car from the airport, a black hard-sided case and a larger gray soft-sided one with both the radioactive and biohazard signs on the side.
“But the car has a—”
“Map apps aren’t going to know that thing is here, so they can’t tell us what roads to avoid, or where the roadblocks are, can they?”
“Just ask them the fastest way to the train tracks. Please.”
Quinn waited for the kid to reach the others. As soon as they were engaged in his explanation of the situation, Quinn grabbed the cases out of the trunk and moved them to the back of a nearby black Humvee marked FEMA, one of four in a row. As with all the vehicles in the makeshift motor pool, the key fob was inside. Quinn started the engine and began tapping on the vehicle’s control screen. After he had disabled the self-driving function, he videocalled the office switchboard and told Clo to get everyone on a teleconference in 30 minutes.
“Can you get satellite imagery?” he asked. “Do we have the hard line to NOAA yet?”
Clo saw something on her computer screen she didn’t like and cursed in French. “I’m not sure. I’ll try.”
“If you can get Trotsky a time series, he might be able to reverse-estimate a point of origin. Or narrow it down anyway.”
“Are you really going in there? With the kid?”
Quinn looked up to see him standing car, looking around confusedly for Quinn.
“You got a better idea?”
He peeped the horn and waived Ezra over. The kid paused before getting in. He was smart enough to know something was wrong.
“Get in,” Quinn urged, glancing back once to make sure no one had noticed them. “And fasten your seatbelt.”
Ezra directed them to a nearby state highway, where they drove south for a mile before turning west onto a paved county road. There wasn’t a person in sight. An enormous mechanical combine, like a dump truck on wheeled stilts, rolled through an interminable field of corn. The widespread automation of agriculture meant human farmers couldn’t compete on price and generally gave up mass monoculture to focus on the boutique market, accelerating the trend of slow, gradual depopulation of rural areas. Of course, without local workers, there was no one there to tell the machines to stop and seek safety, and they went about their work oblivious to the catastrophe unfolding around them.
Quinn slowed as the car approached a roadblock, but the deputy saw the FEMA logo on the Humvee and waved them on. Quinn raised a hand in greeting as they passed.
“You like to drive, don’t you?” Ezra asked.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you disabled the self-driving AI.”
Quinn didn’t answer immediately. “Old habit, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was Bureau policy. You never knew when you’d have to chase someone, so we were required at all times to use law enforcement vehicles, which have high-speed pursuit modules. Where one was not available, which was most of the time in the field, any vehicle we drove either had to be manual or else have the option to disable the safe-driving protocols. I grew up driving, so manual was just easier. If I had my way, SCD would have the same policy.”
“I don’t know how to drive,” Ezra said. He opened his mouth to say more but stopped.
Quinn guessed, based on his face, that it was going to be something like “No one does.” Among young professionals, Quinn supposed, that was probably true.
“None of your friends drive?”
When Ezra shook his head, Quinn noticed him gripping the handle in the door, even though the road was almost perfectly straight.
“Does it bother you?” he asked.
“Well. Maybe a little. Statistically, I mean.”
“Statistically? How does something statistically bother you?”
“I just meant it’s fine. If you trust yourself more.”
“Well, I’m glad I have your permission.”
Ezra laughed once, but being unsure if Quinn meant it as a joke, he stopped quickly and his face turned red.
After another quarter mile, Quinn slowed and the vehicle’s tires jiggled railroad tracks. He leaned forward to get a better view out the windshield.
“I think it’s this way,” he said, turning left onto the bumpy, sloped stretch of clearing that followed the tracks. The Humvee tilted, and everything loose slid to the passenger’s side, including a box of pens in the back seat, which spilled over the floor.
“There.” Quinn pointed to an old farmer’s windmill poking over the tree line. The sail at the back had been pinned to the blades so that it no longer turned. “I saw that from the air.”
He put the car in park but didn’t move.
Ezra looked confused. “Are we going?”
“Look . . . I know you’re nervous.”
“I’m not nervous.”
Quinn stared at the kid’s hand clutching the handle in the door.
Ezra let go. He rubbed his red palm, moist with sweat.
“If you don’t think you can handle this,” Quinn said, “I understand. It isn’t for everybody. I couldn’t do robotic control systems and computer science stuff. But now is the time to say so.”
“You don’t think I belong here, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’re thinking it.”
Quinn took a long, deep breath and let it out. “It’s not that simple.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell you what. You tell me why you are here, and I’ll tell you what I mean.”
Ezra paused. “Aren’t we in a hurry?”
“Tell me,” Quinn insisted.
“You mean, why didn’t I go into the private sector?”
“I dunno. Does that have something to do with it?”
Ezra blushed again. “Sorry. It’s just my parents and everybody have been asking why I didn’t start my own company.”
“I guess I’m just not excited to wake up every day for no other reason than to make a lot of money.”
“A lot of people would be happy just to make a little.”
“Yeah.” Ezra got quiet.
“I understand you’re gifted—”
“I’m not a genius. Or whatever.”
“Fine. Call it a rare skill. You wanna do something noble with it first, is that it?”
“I just don’t want my life to be only about money. I wanna do other things. Interesting things. I wanna help.”
He caught himself when he saw Ezra’s face. “No offense, but not too many people would put ‘helping’ and ‘government work’ together.”
“But that’s what made this job so interesting,” Ezra objected, suddenly very engaged. “The department is totally new, so there’s a chance to do more than just administer policy. We get to interface with leaders in the industry and create something genuinely intelligent that could help people for a really long time—a model way to integrate science into society. I mean, you guys consult with countries all over the world, right?”
“Yeah.” Quinn nodded solemnly. “A few times.”
Ezra saw his face. “Or maybe I’m wrong.”
“I don’t know what kind of recruitment speech Director Ogada gave you, but this is the reality. You wanna help people? This is how you do it. Not by ‘interfacing with industry leaders’ or chatting with the police chief of Brunei or letting your car chauffeur you from the airport at a safe speed. There are a lot of people counting on us right now. Not just any civilians that might be trapped inside that thing, or the families about to lose their homes, but our colleagues, too. They need us to come up with a better option than dropping a very large bomb. And fast.”
“Yeah . . .”
“You know who else is counting on you?” Quinn waited a moment for an answer. “Me.”
The car was quiet.
“I got a wife and a kid and another on the way. You really think I wanna go inside that thing? I dunno, maybe you thought the world was appropriately staffed, that there were always enough people in every agency and they were all adequately trained for what they have to do and we’d be rolling up here like the Men in Black or something.”
“It’s not important. Point is, that’s not how the world works. Not at all. Like it or not, ready or not, this is the job you got. Right here. Because I can’t do this by myself. I need a partner. And I can’t go in there and try to figure this thing out while also holding your hand. So if you wanna quit, do it now.”
Ezra pressed his hands together and looked down at the floor.
“Why don’t you take a moment to think while I get the gear.”
Quinn stepped out and immediately heard a distant but familiar fluttering sound. He looked up to see a large media drone hovering some two thousand feet in the air. It wasn’t directly over the anomaly, but it was close—closer than Erving and Nguyen would like, Quinn was sure. Not a minute later, the same helicopter that had given him the tour appeared to move the drone back.
Ezra’s door opened. “How are we even going to get in?” he asked.
Quinn shook his head. “In’s not the problem. What you should be asking is how we’re gonna get out.”
Chapter from my WIP, the second Science Crimes Division mystery. Get the first here.
cover image by Klay Abele