The area affected by the anomaly was too large to cordon completely, but warning signs had been hammered into the ground at regular intervals, and a barbed-wire fence surrounded the most dangerous areas, including the main compound, where several temporary structures had been erected in the remains of the abandoned neighborhood, including an enormous white-walled hangar. Quinn and Clo flashed their IDs at the gate and signed a digital logbook before being given brief instructions: protective gear was required at all times, they had to be out of the cordon by dark, all liability was theirs, etc. They were each handed a thick plastic packet, inside of which was a thin white hazmat suit, including soft head covering. They explained they had their own, but the guards insisted sternly that visitors were only allowed to wear EPA-approved protective gear. After rolling their eyes at each other, they parked near a large dump truck and slipped the thin suits over their much more robust SCA uniforms.
The land had been razed as far as either of them could see. The anomaly was radioactive, which meant the material it deposited was as well, albeit less so, and every inch of earth to a depth of six inches had to be dug up and carted off by train to the Nevada desert. Trees, grass, homes, absolutely everything inside the anomaly had been pulled down by the EPA, whose backhoes were still hard at work in the distance. There was nothing left. It was apocalyptic.
“What a mess,” Clo said through her head covering, which muffled her voice.
After several moments of bleak silence, a noticeably short man in a much fancier orange suit and black galoshes walked over to greet them. Ezra followed.
“I’m Nelson,” he said through some kind of suit-mounted speaker. “Gary Nelson. I’m the site director here for the EPA.”
“Nice to meet you, Gary.” Quinn took his hand. “I hear you got a body for us.”
“Yes. Well, there’s that, too. We didn’t touch it, as ordered. We kept it in the temporary structure there.” He pointed to the enormous tarp-walled hangar, but he was already walking in a different direction.
Quinn noticed that Ezra had wrangled one of the nicer suits, whereas his own made it difficult to see. The flexible plastic of the visor had been folded inside the case, and the crease cut right through Quinn’s line of vision. The hood was also poorly ventilated, and Quinn felt like he needed to shout over the sound of his own breathing.
“Is it still very radioactive?” he asked.
“Only where we’re working. But chronic exposure even to low levels can cause all kinds of long-term problems. Best to be careful.”
“You said ‘that too.’” Clo also raised her voice to be heard. “Was there something else?”
“Yeah, I’ve been briefing your colleague here.” He motioned to Ezra. “The house and body can be preserved. We could even move them if you needed us to. It’s the other one that’s the problem. We weren’t sure what you wanted us to do with it.”
“Other one? You mean another body?”
“No.” Gary shook his head.
“You just have to see it,” Ezra said ominously.
“It’s down in grid six. We can ride in this.”
Gary motioned to a small covered ATV, one in a row, all marked with the EPA logo. It was a tight fit that required Ezra’s feet to hang off the back, but they got everyone inside, and as the tires rolled over bare, crumbly earth, Quinn watched men and equipment slowly working in small, distant teams. One group was spraying liquid from tanks on their backs which gathered into a rolling red stream, almost like flowing lava. The ATV drove through it.
“Helluva operation you got here, Gar.”
“It’s not toxic,” he said. “It helps absorb radiation and also nitrogenates the soil. Best thing for this place is to get the plant cover back as soon as possible. Is it true what they say? About what happened here?”
“I dunno. What do they say?”
“That you guys disabled the anomaly with a cryogenic bomb.”
Quinn nodded once. “Something like that.”
“You know, I have a degree in chemistry. Lots of experience cleaning up dangerous compounds.”
“It’s just. I heard you guys were hiring. So, maybe . . . You know.”
Quinn gave Clo a look.
“You wanna be a Crimes Division officer, Gar?”
“You guys got all the cool stuff. I heard Arkane made you pulse rifles.”
“What’s a pulse rifle?” Clo asked.
“You don’t know?” Gary turned. He seemed shocked.
“If we did,” Quinn told him, “we couldn’t say, now could we? Something like that would have to be kept secret.”
“Of course.” Gary made a zipping motion over his visor near his lips. “So, how about it?”
“Well, unfortunately, all that stuff has to go through the director. But if you wanted to submit a resume, I’m sure he’d take a look.”
“I did. I wondered if maybe you guys could put in a good word.”
“That we will, Gar. That we will.”
After a short, bumpy ride, the ATV stopped at a small rise.
“This is it.”
Clo stood slowly, eyes glued to the object in the wide, shallow depression below.
“Whoa . . .”
“That’s what I said,” Ezra told her.
An enormous metal sphere rested still in the dirt.
Gary got out and walked toward it. “We’ve been dousing it with liquid nitrogen every ten minutes,” he said. “We’re not sure if that’s doing anything, but since cold worked on the big one, we thought it was better to be safe.”
A man in a white hazmat suit sat in a lawn chair near the sphere reading a book. Next to him was a liquid nitrogen dispersal backpack, complete with tank and heavy-nozzled sprayer.
While the others stood staring, Quinn approached the dull sphere. It was almost twice as tall as him and perfectly smooth. He reached out a gloved hand to touch it, but stopped a few inches away. He could see his own dark, blurry reflection. It was warped and twisted even though the surface didn’t appear to be.
“It’s okay,” Gary explained, running his hand across the surface. “It’s completely inert.” He knocked on it, but there was no sound. “Seems to be solid.”
“Where did it come from?”
“Well, according to FEMA, it wasn’t here originally, which meant it must’ve formed after you guys knocked that thing out.”
“Like a spore,” Ezra said.
Clo took a step back. “You mean it could make another one of those things?”
“It’s just a guess,” Ezra added quickly. “But single-celled organisms often form spores when environmental conditions become too hostile for growth. Spores found on the exterior of the International Space Station survived in a vacuum, constantly bombarded by cosmic rays, for decades. Spores have survived inside Antarctic ice cores for tens of thousands of years, only to be successfully revived.”
“That sounds like it should be illegal,” she drolled.
“It is,” Quinn said. “The court ruled the Species Resurrection Act applies broadly to microbes.”
“Well, that’s good to know.”
“And you’re sure it hasn’t grown?” Quinn asked Gary.
“Yup,” he said. “Hasn’t changed at all. It’s 3.47 meters in diameter, exactly the same as when we found it. We’re trying to keep it below -30 centigrade. That seems to be doing the trick.”
“Well . . .” Quinn sighed. “Someone’s gonna have to take this to the containment facility. And find a way to keep it cold on the way.”
Everyone slowly turned to Ezra, who blushed.
“Let’s clear the house first,” Quinn said, “so Gary and his team can finish their work.”
“We’d appreciate that.”
“Then, Ez, you’re gonna have to take the point on this.”
“Why me?” he pouted.
“Well. Because you don’t have any homicide experience.”
He sighed disappointedly.
“Next time,” Quinn consoled him.
They all looked at the sphere one more time before riding back to the main compound. As they approached, Quinn saw Sheriff Landry waiting by the main gate. She was in her regular jacket and uniform. The guards clearly didn’t like her lack of protective gear, but she apparently agreed not to move from the gate, so they tolerated her insubordination.
“Can’t stay away, can you?” she called as Quinn walked over.
“Sheriff,” he said, taking off his helmet. They shook hands. “Good to see you. How’s Delmer?”
“Oh, he’s sittin’ in jail.”
“I thought you agreed to tear up all his warrants.”
“The old ones, sure. I didn’t say anything about anything new. He assaulted one of those army guys.”
“The one who tased him?”
She nodded. “He knows damned well he can’t go around punching people in the face. Even if they deserve it.” She held up a packet of documents paperclipped to a manila envelope.
“Ah. You got it.”
“You wanna tell me what it means?”
“I sent it early because I thought you might want your lawyers to take a look at it.”
“I’d rather hear it from you.”
“Fair enough. That document says that due to a lack of resources and subject matter expertise, you officially request the investigation into the origin of these events be led by the Crimes Division of the Science Control Agency, US Department of Education.”
Sheriff Landry smiled wryly. She knew there was some hidden significance to the transaction he was proposing, but she also knew that, whatever it was, Quinn was deliberately protecting her from it, so she let him talk, and when he was done with his spiel, she signed the packet in three places without fanfare.
“There.” She handed it back. “We good?”
“We are excellent,” Quinn said, extending his hand again.
The sheriff took it. “I know you got all this nonsense goin’ on, but if you can, you should stick around for some pie.”
She motioned down the road. “Town’s having a little do. You know, to celebrate not being wiped off the map’n all. I can think of a few folks that’d like to shake your hand.”
“Well, if it’s not too late when we’re done, we’ll stop by. Or I will. I can’t speak for the others.”
“Can’t say I’d blame them if they skipped out. I’m not much for these things either. But you know how it goes. Got an election coming up.”
She winked and walked back toward her patrol car.
“What’s that all about?” Clo asked from several paces back.
“Just a joke. She’s a shoo-in for reelection.”
“I meant that,” she said, pointing at the packet in Quinn’s hand.
“Oh.” He held it up. “Nothing exists to the director that isn’t on a piece of paper. So, here’s paper.”
Clo unlocked the rental car so Quinn could put it inside. “And what’s he gonna do when he sees that?”
“Hopefully, not have an arrhythmia,” he joked.
Clo scowled. “Something going on I need to know about?”
“Nope. Just typical agency bullshit.”
She thought for a moment. “He told you not to investigate it.”
“I don’t get it. Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we’re supposed to investigate?”
“To be fair, I think the director sees this whole episode as a failure.” He motioned to the decimated landscape. “He wants us to focus on threat reports because he thinks that’s our best chance of getting ahead of this kinda stuff, of stopping it before it happens rather than after.”
“Bad guys aren’t gonna apply for a science license.”
“Yeah, well, try telling him that.”
As the pair headed toward the enormous white hangar, Clo nodded back toward the car. “Are a couple signatures gonna be enough to convince him?”
“Dunno. I’m having a hard time reading the man.”
“Might that be because he’s wasting away in a hospital bed?”
“Maybe. Part of me says he’s got some sort of plan, that he wants FEMA to issue their incident report absent a cause so he can use the omission as an excuse to wrangle for a bigger budget or something. Or, maybe we’re the pointy end of a cover up.”
“A cover up?” Clo scowled. “For who?”
“No idea. Then again, part of me also thinks he’s just a career bureaucrat who can’t see beyond his own nose, and if the incident report comes out absent any progress on the investigation and people start demanding answers, he’ll just throw one of us under the bus and introduce a bunch of reactionary policies. Either way, I’m trying to head him off at the pass.”
Clo shook her head as they went through a decontamination tunnel. Signs instructed them to raise their arms as jets of treated air hit their bodies.
“You’d think that after something crazy like this they’d back off a bit and let us do our jobs.”
“Yeah, well, no matter where you are, management always thinks we exist to support them rather than the reverse.”
The giant white hangar had no floor. Under their feet was the same bare dirt as outside. Resting on it at even intervals were all the things salvaged from the chaos, including everything inorganic, which was mostly trash, arranged by size, along with several of the strange spires Quinn had seen from the air. Multiple trees that had been wholly replicated by the anomaly stood in a cluster like a charcoal sculpture of a forest. At the back of the enormous space was the boarded, derelict house, which stood alone against the white wall of the hangar.
“That’s not at all creepy,” Clo said.
Ezra had prepared their equipment on a folding-leg table in what would’ve been the home’s front yard.
“Everything’s working,” he said as the others approached. The spherical drone hovered in the air behind him.
“Coms check,” Quinn said.
“Loud and clear,” Thalia replied from her desk at Section 08.
“Drone’s on camera duty,” he told her. “Record everything.”
“Ez, you’re handling equipment and taking samples.”
“I don’t have to tell you all what almost happened here, how close this was to a tragedy. A unknown technology darn near swallowed an entire town.” Quinn paused to let that sink in. “Someone is responsible for that. Several families lost everything. Three people are confirmed dead. Two seem to be accidental, according to our friends at FEMA. The third”—Quinn pointed to the house—“is certainly not. Based on the state of the body, we’re proceeding as if this was a murder. However, we should not immediately assume it’s related to the anomaly. It could be this guy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The kids Ez and I spoke to said he’d been hanging around the place for a couple months. Maybe it was just bad timing. Or, someone might’ve saw the anomaly as an opportunity to rid themselves of a body. Or, neither of those. That means for today, our job is two-fold. We have two separate lines of evidence we’re tracking. We need to discover the identity of this man and what happened to him, and we need identify the cause of the anomaly and how it got loose, taking this house as the point of origin. For that reason, as we go through it, I want Clo and Kripke to focus on the anomaly. Thalia and I will focus on the murder. When we’re done, we’ll switch up and go back through the whole thing again to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Make sense?”
“All right. Let’s get to work.”
Rough cut from the second installment of the Science Crimes Division series, tentatively called ANACHRON. (They do not have to be read in order.)
cover image by Edward Burtynsky