Heart in the Hand of Matter
rating: +28+x

Grace had just put the baby to bed and settled down on the couch next to him to watch the Texaco Star Theatre when the phone rang. She set aside the crochet hooks and yarn she was shaping into a hat and went to the kitchen to answer it. For a moment Bruce entertained the idea of telling her to relax and remain seated, it was probably for him anyway, but the host of Texaco, Milton Berle, was introducing an act that somehow involved spinning plates and poodles. He really wanted to see how that worked.

"Bruce, it's for you."

He sighed and took a sip of scotch and water. The poodles were wearing pink skirts and tiaras.

"Bruce!" called Grace.

Swearing under his breath, Bruce peeled himself from the television and stamped into the kitchen. Grace was waiting next to the refrigerator, the phone extended in her hand. "Well?" he said. "Who is it?"

He glanced at his wristwatch. It was a quarter to nine.

"It's Leonard."

Of course. Who else would it be?

His face remained impassive while a cold shiver, like a static-electric shock, made the hairs on his forearms bristle. He fumbled the exchange of the phone and managed to snag the cord between his fingers. The line went taut with the receiver dangling an inch from the linoleum. It swung like a pendulum as he reeled it back in.

Grace believed that Leonard was his primary contact for a department store looking to expand their brand to the east coast, and that his firm was spearheading the launch of the company's upcoming fall campaign. And while it wasn't unusual for him to receive business calls at night, Leonard had recently gotten into the habit of calling sometimes as late as two or three in the morning, and Grace had quickly developed a distaste for the man. Bruce didn't blame her, and wished he could confide in her that he shared the sentiment.

She watched, partially turned away from him with her arms crossed.

He pinned the phone between his shoulder and ear and shooed Grace out of the kitchen. "Lenny," he said, the manufactured pleasure in his voice concealing his unease. "What can I do for you?"

I should never have gotten involved with them, Bruce thought to himself. But it was too late to back out now, and as a consultant on retainer they paid him four thousand dollars a year. He knew people who didn't make that much from their full-time jobs.

What am I going to do in the fall? I told Grace we were going to saturate all three media markets, blitz the radio stations, television and print with advertisements. He'd even gone so far as to show her fake mock-ups of ads he claimed to be working on. Will they be willing to fabricate all that just to placate my wife? But he already knew the answer, and didn't want to think about it too long. When the time came he'd just have to invent another lie.

"Mr. Hand," said the voice on the other end. It was a powerful baritone. Bruce had come to loathe it, and he involuntarily winced at the sound. "Dr. Keller believes it's time for a face-to-face. We have a plane standing by at North Beach Airport. A car will arrive at your residence in one hour to take you."

"What? No, that's not going to work. I have a meeting tomorrow morning with the people from Randolph, and then I'm taking my family to Lake Winnipesaukee for the weekend. Maybe next week I could—"

"Perhaps you misunderstood me," Leonard interrupted. "It was not a request. You will be on the flight. You will be ready to depart in one hour."

Bruce's temper flared, emboldened by three glasses of single-malt. "Wait one goddamn second. Now you listen to me. I—"

The line went dead. He hung the phone back on its cradle.

What the hell excuse can I sell Grace this time? he wondered.

Bruce inched his way back to the living room and peeked around the corner. His wife was on the sofa. He heard the soft, soothing clicks of the crochet hooks as she knitted, and on the television set, Texaco Star Theater was breaking to a commercial. He'd missed the damn poodles and plates.

1

The jeep tore across the hardpan, kicking up a rooster tail of dust in its wake.

The radio on the dash crackled. "Man-Eaters, hang back!" shouted a tinny voice. "You're entering the Chimney Sweep blast zone! Stop! For fuck's sake stop!"

Irvine slammed on the brakes. The other jeeps following behind him in a wedge formation did likewise, fishtailing in the sand before sliding to a halt. Echo Unit exited the vehicles and fanned out, careful not to bunch too close together. Irvine climbed the scree of a hillock. He hefted a pair of binoculars slung around his neck and raised them to his eyes. Some of the other soldiers produced binoculars of their own, and Corporal Anderson began rolling with a 16 mm camera.

A klick ahead the land funneled into a natural bottleneck formed between a butte and a spur of the Shoshone Mountains. For the past two days Foundation engineering and demolition teams had worked around the clock to wire the narrow corridor with more than ten tons of Composition C, burying it in the ground and planting it in bores drilled into the slopes. Helicopters circled in the sky high above.

"Can you see it, Lieutenant?" Kontos, his sergeant, asked.

"I can see it," Irvine said around a Winston tucked into the corner of his mouth.

Rapidly approaching the corridor was their target, codename: Wintermute. From this distance it didn't look like much, the eye couldn't distinguish the individuals that made up its whole, and so it all blurred into what may have been a giant, fleshy worm careering across the desert.

"You really think this will work?" somebody else said. It might have been Martinez.

Irvine didn't know who was being addressed, and didn't want to lower the binoculars to find out, so refrained from sharing his opinion. He thought it would work. It had to work. He hadn't slept in over thirty-six hours, probably could go another day or two if he really pushed it, but by then the skip would reach Vegas and there'd be no opportunity for rest.

A butterfly stirred in his stomach. Through the magnification of the lenses it appeared as if the target was veering slightly from its southeast heading, and could potentially pass north of the butte instead of through the forecasted route. The change — if there was any change at all— was only by several degrees, and may have been distorted by the perspective angle or a trick of the setting sun.

Irvine dropped the binoculars to spare a glance at his men. One look at their faces was enough to convince him it wasn't his imagination. They'd noticed it too.

"Can you get the Chimney Sweep team on the line?" he asked Boyle, his radio operator.

"I think so, sir. They hailed us with the warning. I'll have to—"

The handheld squawked as Boyle reached for it: "Mercury for Man-Eaters. Mercury for Man-Eaters. Come in."

Irvine motioned for the walk-talkie. It was shaped like a telephone on steroids with a whip antenna. A thick cord ran from a socket beneath the mouthpiece to a transmitter that Boyle carried on his back like a rucksack.

"This is Eaters-actual, over," Irvine said.

"Eaters, we've just received word from Chimney Sweep that Wintermute has moved off course. Please confirm, over."

"Roger, Mercury. Target is off course."

Mercury was the Foundation's forward operating base located on the Jackass Flats of Nevada, east of Yucca Mountain. It consisted of a dirt airstrip set between hangers and Quonset huts.

"Copy that, Eaters. We'll get back to you with updated orders. In the meantime you're to continue pursuit."

The response generated groans and hushed protests from a majority of the squad.

Irvine said, "Mercury, you still got some of my men chaperoning the demolition team?"

"That's an affirmative."

"Well, I believe Private Pangborn has an M2 with him. Have him open up with that, see if it draws Wintermute's attention."

"Copy, standby."

A moment later they heard the purr of a heavy machine gun echoing through the defile. Irvine lifted the binoculars. Come on. Come on, you bastard. Take the bait. Take the fucking bait.

But it was too late. The target had skirted around the butte, and was already exiting the M2's field of view, shielded now by the butte's sandstone caprock.

It didn't make any sense. There was nothing in that direction for miles and miles except long-abandoned towns the Foundation had already confirmed were clear.

Had Wintermute anticipated the trap laid for it? Was that even possible?

Irvine returned the walkie-talkie to Boyle, who immediately began relaying the failure to Mercury.

"Saddle up," Irvine hollered, flicking the butt of his cigarette into the sand. "We're riding out."

They piled back into the jeeps and raced across the desert like a convoy of rum runners breaking for the state line. MTF soldiers on motorcycles retrofitted for the terrain covered the rear and flanks of the formation, weaving between the larger vehicles.

Two days. Two days of meticulous planning and preparation, and in less than a minute all of it extinguished, knocked down like a flimsy house of cards. Irvine white-knuckled the steering wheel and threw the jeep into second, gathering speed as they chased down the anomaly. He didn't know what they could do now. Was there even a failsafe for Chimney Sweep? If there was they hadn't deemed to share it with him, and right now it seemed like nothing could stop it.

2

Bruce fell asleep on the plane, lulled by the constant hum of the prop engines. He woke when his ears popped during the descent, and when he looked at his watch he saw only bare wrist. There was a loose pin in the butterfly clasp that sometimes caused it to fall off. He hitched up his pant legs and knelt on the floor, prospecting the carpet with his hands and scolding himself for not getting it fixed already.

It wasn't there. The pin he could see losing, it was small, but not the actual watch, and he was sure he was wearing it because he remembered checking the time when the aircraft took off. It was still dark outside the plane's rounded windows, and for all he knew he could've been asleep for an hour or ten, although it felt closer to the former.

Did someone steal it?

But there was no one else on the plane to ask or confront, and it shortly touched down on the tarmac. A ramp agent boarded and escorted Bruce down the steps and into the back of a Lincoln parked between two runway landing lights. A partition separated him from the driver.

They glided over a paved road that wound furtively through a wooded area. The road was wide, and Bruce guessed it could've accommodated four or five lanes, except there were no markings, and he saw neither a road sign or a house before they arrived at his apparent destination: a large compound that sprang up in the middle of the forest like something out of a fairytale. Bruce felt both overwhelmed and uneasy as the Lincoln was waved through by a guard at a gatehouse. The guard was dressed in a starched military uniform without insignia, and armed with a rifle.

The compound was an impressive example of the Art Deco architecture that had been popular a decade prior, with streamlined features and a façade of chrome, stucco, and Vitrolite. It reminded Bruce of several trainstations he'd passed through, although it lacked the ornamentation he usually associated with the style.

The compound disappeared as the livery car slipped down a ramp into an underground parking garage. They went down a further two levels before stopping in front of a door marked as maintenance access, its corrugated steel shutter rolled up. A tall man wearing slacks and suspenders, the sleeves of his checkered shirt pushed past his elbows, leaned next to the door. Bruce's mouth went dry and he forced himself to swallow. He didn't want to get out of the Lincoln, but the tall man didn't offer him any choice and opened the rear passenger door.

"Mr. Hand," he said, and Bruce immediately recognized the voice. "I'm Leonard. Nice to finally meet you."

He'd never met either Dr. Keller or Leonard before tonight, at least not in person. His handler had originally been an avuncular old man by the name of Dennis who had a head of thick white hair and a penchant for tweed jackets. Their interactions had been limited to brief conversations, usually conducted over the phone, once or twice a month. The topics varied but had always been related to market communication. About six months ago he'd been passed to a new handler identifying himself as Leonard, and initially everything had gone as expected, but over the past week the frequency of the phone calls suddenly ballooned to the point of harassment, and the discussions abruptly shifted to subjects in which Bruce had no experience. He was frequently asked bizarre and hypothetical questions, such as how he would go about concealing the deaths of thousands of American civilians from the general public, or what he would do if he was the only person to know that a nearby volcano was about to erupt.

"Please follow me," Leonard said.

Bruce grabbed his suitcase and allowed himself to be led through a painfully bright hallway, up three flights in an elevator, past a waiting area with a receptionist desk — deserted at this late hour — and through a series of rooms marked with biohazard and radioactive trefoil warnings. Down a flight of stairs. Left turn. Right turn. He began to suspect the layout was purposefully confusing and intended to disorient. They arrived at another door, this one with a Judas window, and a guard on the other side had to buzz them through.

They entered what appeared to be a dormitory, with tiled floors and fluorescent lighting. Numbered doors were evenly spaced along a hall that stretched the length of half a city block. All of the doors they passed were closed, the cadence of heavy breathing emanating from a few of them. At door number 306 Leonard stopped. He opened the door and flicked on the light.

Bruce's assumption of a dorm was accurate, although one he'd expect to find in a prison or state-run hospital. The floor was bare; walls cinderblocks with a coat of white paint slapped on. There wasn't even a window or desk, just a locker at the foot of the bed. At the sight of the thin mattress with its cheap motel sheets Bruce's anger and resentment flared, escalated by the shame he felt toward his own fear. This wasn't what he'd agreed to at all when he'd first met Dennis and signed his name on the dotted line.

"Hey, what the hell is this?" he said, backing out of the room. "I'm not sleeping in here. If you don't want to pay for it I'll spring for a goddamn hotel room myself."

He glanced over his shoulder, back down the hallway. The guard sat in a chair reading a newspaper and picking his nose, and Bruce had the disturbing revelation that he wasn't there to keep people out.

He was there to keep people in.

Leonard said, "The nearest hotel is more than fifty miles away, and there're no roads leading from the facility, other than the one you took to get here from the airport, of course. No, the only way in or out is on foot, by air, or by sea. We have a dock, but there're no boats berthed there tonight, and I'm afraid the current would be fighting against you. Are you a good swimmer, Mr. Hand?"

"No roads? Where is this place?" He'd been wondering this for quite some time, but hadn't had an opportunity to ask since departure. When he'd inquired about his destination to anyone back in New York they'd all responded that they didn't know.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hand, I'm not authorized to disclose that information."

Bruce laughed. It was either that or scream. He would've strangled Leonard if he didn't have to crane his neck just to look him in the eye. The bastard reminded him of Lurch.

"Am I a prisoner?" he forced himself to ask. He didn't really want to know the answer, but the uncertainty was even worse.

"No, you're not. If you'd like to leave right now we won't physically stop you. We'd certainly try to convince you otherwise, and I personally advise against it. We hope to have the matter that necessitated this meeting resolved within a day or two, and after that you'll be returned home, along with a sizable gratuity based on your performance. Your cooperation, of course, is expected and could further expedite that resolution."

Leonard spoke monotonously, and yet there was an implacable strength projected through his stoic and infuriatingly polite mien. He would've made a great butler, and again Bruce was reminded of the mute Lurch from the Addams Family cartoons he used to read in the New Yorker.

Bruce said, "I never consented to this CIA covert bullshit, okay? I'm an American citizen. I'm a taxpayer. You can't treat me like this. If you don't take me to your supervisor immediately I'll contact my lawyer."

"Mr. Hand, we are not the CIA."

"What? Who the hell are you, then? FBI?"

"No." And as if that settled the matter Leonard directed his attention back to the room. "This is where you will be staying while you're here with us. Number three-oh-six. Remember it. There're no locks on the outside, but inside you'll find there is a deadbolt if you're so inclined. I do apologize for the lack of amenities."

Oh God, thought Bruce, have I been working for the KGB this whole time without knowing it? That would certainly explain the room's austere décor. Is he going to address me as comrade and tell me that if I don't play along they'll report me as a traitor? A vivid image flashed in Bruce's mind. In it he hanged from a gibbet, his pants dripping with urine, face bloated and tongue lolling on his lips like a dead fish left out in the sun. A crowd of people cheered and waved American flags.

"Who are you?" he repeated, voice reduced to a whisper.

Leonard ignored him and pointed to the end of the hall, opposite of where the guard idly thumbed through the sports section. "Down there you'll find the bathrooms. Why don't you go there now and freshen up? Shave, shower, do what you need to do. I'll meet you back at your room in half an hour and we'll begin."

"Begin what?"

"Your orientation. Welcome to the Foundation, Mr. Hand."

3

The moon was rising, had reached halfway to its zenith, when Echo Unit from the Mobile Task Force "Man-Eaters" arrived at Silver Creek. At the tail end of the last century, following the discovery of a silver vein, the town had experienced a moderate surge in immigration. But by the middle of the roaring twenties the lode had been exhausted, the mine was shut, and the population dwindled until the post office eventually closed in 1948.

Irvine parked the M38 next to a tar paper shack behind what had probably served as the town's church, community center, and town hall, all rolled into one. He hopped out, and to the pair of jeeps pulling up along side of him said: "Tsavo and Bruin, you men continue the chase. We'll meet up with you in a couple of minutes. Good hunting." The rear tires spun in the sand before catching, and the two vehicles drove off to the east.

"Leslie," Irvine called. He thumbed the wheel of his Zippo and cupped his hands protectively around the flame, lighting a cigarette. "Go around and lower the pressure in the tires by another pound or two. They're still sinking."

All of the men in the task force were expected to serve in a secondary capacity. Leslie — whose real name was Lesniewksi — pulled double-duty as the unit's mechanic.

"I'm on it," Leslie said and notched a salute.

Irvine strolled to the edge of the Silver Creek cemetery and swept his eyes over the grounds, trying to solve this new puzzle. The cemetery was illuminated by the jeep's headlights, a half acre of land overgrown with weeds and scrub, enclosed by a split-rail fence.

Sergeant Kontos approached a section of fence that had been knocked down and pounded into splinters. "Our target definitely came through here," he said, stating the obvious. Behind him Anderson began rolling with his camera.

Irvine nodded. He entered the cemetery through a small gap that had once been a gate — he could still see the rusted hinges screwed into the post on the left — and threaded his way between the plots. Brambles and Arizona thistle snagged at his boot laces and pants. Far away a group of coyotes yipped and howled at the moon, while a cold wind combed the desert and drove the top layer of sand across the flat like a rushing blanket of mist.

He counted fifty freshly exhumed graves, coffins torn open from the inside and the bodies missing. It was as if they'd suddenly been resurrected and clawed their way out.

"That must be why she zigged when we needed her to zag," Martinez said, jettisoning a wad of snuff from the pocket of his cheek. "Smelled the fuckin' corpses."

"They don't need to be…y'know, alive?" Boyle asked.

"See for yourself," said Martinez, indicating the shallow holes.

The Foundation had scoured the surrounding land for any human within a fifty mile radius of the Chimney Sweep corridor. They'd closed highways and mandated the evacuation of towns under the pretense of impending tornados. After airlifting two men from a broken down International Harvester on Route 32 and a group of paleontologists digging up fossils outside the town of Charlton, the Reconnaissance and Survey department had announced the area was clear except for the presence of limited Foundation personnel.

Irvine hunkered down next to one of the pits. He removed his hat — a black Resistol — and scooped up a handful of the disinterred earth, inhaling the rich clay scent. The dirt was cool and damp; it hadn't been exposed long enough for the air to dry it out yet.

"You think Martinez is right, sir?" Boyle said.

He tipped his hand and let the soil spill like a cataract from his spaded fingertips, hollowly pattering against the lid of the empty casket. On an impulse Irvine pulled off the ivy that covered the grave's marker, a flat piece of granite with a horseshoe engraved in one corner. The marker had been split into four fragments. The epitaph was worn but — when combining all pieces — still legible. It belonged to a veteran of the Spanish-American war.

Irvine exhaled twin contrails of blue cigarette smoke from his nose. "Yeah. Yeah, it seems Mr. Martinez is right."

A splash of red caught his eye among a patch of Indian tea. He plucked it from the leaves, thinking it was an odd place to find a child's toy, turned it over in his hand, and immediately dropped it.

Kontos said, "What? What was it?"

"Nothing," he said, rubbing his hands on his pants.

What he'd mistaken for a ball was actually a small head lacquered in blood, like a candied shell around a rotten apple. A millipede crept across its cheek. The lips were missing, and its milk teeth were just starting to come in through the gums. It wasn't from the graveyard, as it couldn't have been dead for more than a day or two. Irvine should've known better than to touch it. He told himself that even if Chimney Sweep had been successful it wouldn't have made the baby any less dead. Death didn't work on a sliding scale.

He sighed, put his hat back on and stood up. Nobody said anything. The Foundation was apparently unaware that dead bodies were affected by the phenomenon. They'd only searched for living people, and had performed a cursory examination of the Silver Creek ghost town before declaring it empty. Now the anomaly was off course, and tonight, instead of celebrating a successful mission over a couple of pints, Man-Eater was stuck wandering around the desert in the dark.

"So how come it didn't take all of them?" Kontos said.

It was a good question, one that Irvine had been mulling over himself. Almost half the plots had been left unscathed. And although most of the headstones had been toppled from their plinths and laid smashed to gravel among the weeds, there were a few that he could still make out. He compared the surviving stones on some of the undisturbed graves to the ones that'd been exhumed.

He said, "Most of the ones it left alone are older. A lot older. Look, this one's death is dated 1876. Maybe they're too far gone for it."

"It likes the fresh meat," Martinez said.

Irvine shrugged. "I don't think taste has anything to do with it. Boyle."

"Yes sir?"

"Get on the horn with Mercury. Tell them the news, and that it seems to be dependent on the state of decay." Anticipating the base's response, Irvine added, "And no, we don't know at what point in the decomposition process they become…ah, inedible. Inconsumable."

He could see it unfold if he closed his eyes — the skip battering its way through the graveyard, plucking the corpses from the ground like so many rows of ripened crops.

"Leslie!" he shouted.

"What?" came the response as Leslie returned from the jeeps, wiping grease off his hands with a rag.

"You finished deflating those tires?"

"Yes sir. Also topped off the fluids, fixed Damnatio's headlights, and replaced the fan belt on Mugger. If you guys continued this circle-jerk much longer I probably could've gotten a fresh coat of wax on 'em, too."

He was exaggerating, there was no time to complete all that, but Irvine chose to ignore it. "All right. No one likes a show off."

Leslie stuffed the rag in his back pocket. "Roger wilco. We do have one problem though, sir."

"Just one?" he said. "Well, that comes as good news to me. Come on, spit it out man."

"We're low on fuel."

Irvine frowned beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. "How could that happen?" he said.

"It's Chimney Sweep all over again. We didn't plan on having to drive beyond the corridor."

"So how much gas do we have?"

Leslie said, "Less than half a tank."

"And where will that get us?"

Leslie completed the simple arithmetic in his head. The fuel tanks held fifteen gallons, and in this terrain the jeeps got about fifteen miles to the gallon. "We're looking at around a hundred, a hundred and ten miles. Maybe."

"What about the bikes?"

"The bikes get better mileage but they've got smaller tanks, so it evens out."

They might make it on that. Then again they might not. There was no way for them to condense the number of M38s to four, nevermind three, to try and save on fuel. Not without breaking up the task force. There were sixteen members of Man-Eaters in the unit, and what little space in the jeeps they didn't occupy was packed tight with their supplies, gear, equipment and ammo. The rear seat of the jeep that Lesniewski drove had been removed specifically so that extra canisters of gasoline could fit.

If it came down to it, Irvine would just have to siphon gas off from the other jeeps and leave the rest of the unit behind.

Hopefully it wouldn't come down to it.

"Come on," Irvine said, "I don't know about you but I've had enough of this place. Let's get the hell out of here and catch up with Tsavo and Bruin."

The wind would've long erased the tread marks left by Tsavo and Bruin. Not that it mattered. The skip itself wasn't hard to find.

All you had to do was follow the trail of the dead.

4

Bruce was ushered into a large office, with bay windows providing a vista of the forest outside and polished furniture made from Brazilian rosewood. He felt a pang of jealousy at its luxury and understated opulence. It was nicer than his own Lower Manhattan office. The scent of tobacco and lemon lingered in the room. Sitting behind a massive desk, like a defending soldier ensconced behind the walls of a fortress, was a man with more salt than pepper in his hair. Thick bifocals hung from a lanyard around his neck.

He stood when Bruce entered and held out his hand.

"Mr. Hand," he said. Bruce shook the proffered hand. "So good to finally meet you. I'm Dr. Keller. Please sit down, sit down."

Bruce sat in a Morris chair with fluted woodwork.

Dr. Keller waited politely before taking his own seat. He stared intently at Bruce while his hands explored the topography of the desk, probing until they found what they were looking for: an antique meerschaum pipe. He removed a pinch of tobacco from a nearby tin, packed the chamber and sparked a match, all the while his hooded eyes remained focused on Bruce. He took several drags from the pipe and shook the match out. "Hand, Hand, Hand," he said. His gaze finally broke as a cloud of smoke occluded his face. There was a not entirely unpleasant aroma to the smoke, hinting at Asian spices and cloves and citrus. "Hand. That's an interesting surname. I don't think I'm familiar with it. May I inquire about the origins?"

Bruce crossed his legs. "It's Jewish. It was Handelsman but was shortened when my family emigrated to America." He was tired, had gotten only four or five hours of sleep after orientation, and the coffee he'd drank earlier that morning had long since worn off. "And yours, doctor? What is the origin of Keller?"

"Ah. I believe I've put my proverbial foot in it."

"I think you mean you've put your foot in your mouth."

"Yes, probably. I've never quite grasped American idioms. But before we get off on the wrong track — or, if we already have, please allow me the opportunity to steer us back onto the right one. My name is German, as I'm sure you're aware. I left Düsseldorf in nineteen-twenty and came to the United States, probably for many of the same reasons as your own family, if I can be presumptuous. I have a passing interest in genealogy, which is the only reason I asked the question. My maternal grandfather is of Jewish descent, and I assure you there is no ulterior motive regarding eugenics, and certainly not the Übermensch or any other nonsensical tripe preached by the Third Reich." He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers over his paunch. The leather made a dull sound as he shifted, like crumpling a paper bag. "There. Does that… clear the air?"

Maybe the doctor was telling the truth. It was undeniable that he spoke English fluently, albeit with an accent. But after everything Bruce had learned in the past twelve hours about the Foundation, he wouldn't put it past the shadow organization to forge immigration documents in order to get a Nazi scientist on the payroll. He tried to remember what he knew about Dr. Keller. What was he a doctor of? Bruce racked his brain. Leonard had mentioned it in one of his phone calls.

It came to him like a metaphorical light-bulb going off above his head — psychology.

And what could the Foundation possibly want with a German psychologist?

The explanation was obvious: manipulation. Influence. Propaganda. Indoctrination. Proselytization. He could go on and on. The Germans had practically invented the field, although if you asked Bruce it was more of a pseudoscience.

"Did I use that correctly? Clear the air?"

Before he could respond Dr. Keller raised his index finger, requesting Bruce wait a moment. He leaned over and rifled through the contents of a desk drawer. "That reminds me, the cleaning crew found this on the airplane. I believe it's yours?"

He pulled out Bruce's silver Breitling watch and gave it to him. "Thank you," Bruce said, nonplussed. He hadn't expected to ever see it again. The time on the watch matched the clocks in the building, (Or was it the other way around?) implying that he'd remained in the same time zone.

Doubtful. He'd left New York in the middle of January. Looking out Dr. Keller's office windows, evergreen trees soared until their saw-toothed peaks were lost in clouds. The ground was hidden under a shag rug of moss and lichen. That same moss bearded tree trunks; it draped like shawls from branches and bent saplings under its weight.

It didn't look like anyplace Bruce had ever seen. It looked prehistoric. Primordial.

He inspected the clasp on the band of the watch, and to no surprise found that the loose pin was still secured in place. That meant they were either an incredibly thorough cleaning crew, to find it and put it back, or it hadn't fallen off in the first place.

He realized that the doctor had been speaking to him. He slid the watch onto his wrist, fastened the band and looked up. "I'm sorry? I didn't catch that."

"I was just saying that Leonard told me he's caught you up with our current predicament."

"Yes. I mean, as much as possible. It's a lot to take in, and I'm not really sure what I can do to help. I'm an account executive with an advertising firm."

"It's quite simple: we need your expertise, Bruce. May I call you Bruce?"

He nodded his acquiescence.

"Good. And please, call me Felix. We don't have time for the trappings of formalities. We've got work to do." Dr. Keller retrieved a manila folder from a cabinet, opened it and thumbed through several pages, then slid a sheet of paper over to Bruce. "That came in a couple of hours ago."

Bruce picked it up and read it.

STATUS REPORT

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DEPARTMENT OF STRATEGIC OPERATIONS AND COMMAND

Foundation Base Camp Mercury, Nevada

CLASSIFICATION: Top Secret

MEMORANDUM FOR: Operation Ranger

Date: 01/25/1951

From: Robert O'Neill, Col USAF (Ret)
L4 FD Senior Field Coordinator

To: Wesley Peebles, S.O.W, C.S.D.,
L4 FD Div Operations and Strategy

Target: Wintermute is ACTIVE. At current rate it will reach LAS VEGAS (POP 50000) no later than 01/29/1951, and possibly as soon as 01/26/1951.

Impact: SEVERE. Civilian casualties continue to climb and are currently estimated at 75,000 with expected fatality rate higher than 99%. DEFENSE CONDITION 3. Potential for K-CLASS scenario is SLIGHT to MODERATE.

Resources Deployed: MTF Gamma-5 ("Red Herrings") is currently ENGAGED. MTF Epsilon-4 ("Slanted and Enchanted") is MIA and PRESUMED DEAD.

Artillery strike success is VERY LOW. SUPERFORTRESS aerial incendiary bombardment SUPERFLAMER and BLOCKBUSTER met with LOW success. HIGH EXPLOSIVE bombardment was also VERY LOW. Target Wintermute is highly mobile and evasive.

Project CHIMNEY SWEEP is a COMPLETE and UTTER FAILURE. Target Wintermute failed to arrive at predicted location. Schedule unlikely to allow for second attempt but CHIMNEY SWEEP II has been implemented and is currently underway.

Project ENKIDU has been implemented and is currently underway.

Project TOPEKA moderate success and continues.

Resource Update: MTF Eta-8 ("Man-Eaters") has replaced MTF Epsilon-4 ("Slanted and Enchanted").

Acquisition Request: IMMEDIATE deployment and discretionary approval for package ABLE.

Finished reading, Bruce frowned and tried to figure out what it all meant. As far as he was concerned it might as well have been written in a foreign language.

He returned the sheet to the desk. "I'm sorry Dr. Keller — excuse me, Felix — but I still don't see why I'm involved."

Dr. Keller handed him a second slip of paper. Bruce sighed but indulged the doctor once more.

Notes: The below transcript was broadcasted throughout the state of Nevada in violation of FCC regulations.

Source: NOAA Weather Radio

Project Codename: TOPEKA, Operation Ranger

Original Broadcast Date: 01/25/1951

Voice Message:

…THIS IS THE NEVADA WEATHER SERVICE…

…THIS IS NOT A TEST…

…THE NEVADA WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A TORNADO EMERGENCY FOR…

LANDER COUNTY, CENTRAL NEVADA.

HAZARD…DEADLY TORNADO.

AT 245 PM CDT…NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE ACQUIRED VISUAL CONFIRMATION OF AN EXTREMELY LARGE AND DEADLY TORNADO ON THE GROUND IN THE TOWN OF RIVELL, MOVING SOUTHEAST TOWARD PRISCILLA CITY, LANDER COUNTY…THIS IS AN EMERGENCY SITUATION. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY!

…THE NEVADA STATE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DEPARTMENT HAS ISSUED MANDATORY EVACUATIONS FOR…
ABBINGTON, LANDER COUNTY
PRISCILLA CITY, LANDER COUNTY
SANDY SPRINGS, LANDER COUNTY

…RESIDENTS OF THESE TOWNSHIPS ARE ORDERED TO VACATE THEIR HOMES AND GO DIRECTLY TO THE NEAREST MUNICIPAL BUILDING. THE NATIONAL GUARD AND NEVADA STATE DEFENSE FORCE HAVE BEEN DEPLOYED AND WILL TRANSPORT YOU TO A SAFE LOCATION. THIS IS NOT A TEST. YOU ARE IN IMMEDIATE AND DEADLY PERIL! MOVE DIRECTLY TO THE NEAREST MUNICIPAL BUILDING IN YOUR TOWN FOR EVACUATION. YOUR LIFE IS AT RISK…YOU ARE IN MORTAL DANGER!

…THIS MESSAGE WILL REPEAT IN FIFTEEN SECONDS…

Topeka, he thought. God, they must think they're so clever. He admittedly felt a bit like Dorothy himself, a stranger in a strange land. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

He said, "Okay, so I think I'm starting to figure this out."

During a recent phone conversation with Leonard, Bruce's answer to a random question about what he'd do to conceal the deaths of thousands of Americans had been to fault a natural disaster. Like an earthquake or a flood. Or a tornado. He'd rationalized that you couldn't blame anyone or anything for a tornado, except maybe Mother Nature or God. The voice out of the whirlwind and all that.

Based on the two documents they'd taken his speculative, off-the-cuff remark and applied it to the real-world. Real people. Real people who were really dead.

Suddenly Bruce didn't feel so good.

He still couldn't comprehend what the Foundation expected from him, despite Dr. Keller glossing over it with generic flattery. His expertise? What the hell was he an expert in that would be remotely applicable, that would make him in any way qualified? Didn't they realize that he dealt with client acquisition and juggling the management of accounts? He spent most of his days triaging deadlines and finding work-arounds for budgetary constraints.

"Look, I think you've got the wrong guy. I'm an account exec, which means—"

"We know exactly what it means. We also know that you didn't start off as an account executive and that you graduated with a bachelors in design arts. I won't detail the highlights of your career — I'm sure you're already familiar with them — and in return I'd ask that you don't sit there and tell me with a straight face that you're not the right man for the job."

"The kind of work you're talking about… I haven't done it in a very long time."

"No, but out of all the marketing and advertising specialists we keep on retainer your assistance has proved most valuable."

Bruce clenched his teeth. "What do you want from me?"

Dr. Keller placed his pipe on the desk. "I'm asking for your help, Bruce. I thought I made that clear. I'm asking for your help coming up with a story to protect the public from this threat. You've already given me one successful cover, which is the reason you're sitting across from me today. But we're not out of the woods yet. If this thing reaches Las Vegas, we need to be prepared."

"I don't understand why you didn't just stop it a week ago."

"We tried," Dr. Keller said, grimacing. "We didn't have much information to go on. We still don't, but we tried. We thought — based on certain properties — that it may be the Gerasene demon, commonly referred to as 'Legion'. You may not be familiar with the story, it's from the New Testament, but it's no longer relevant. It was believed it had to be that or a similar Judaic-Christian entity. The Tower of Babel, although not an entity, was also conjectured. We deployed a task force to the impacted area, call-sign Slanted and Enchanted, which specialized in theological phenomena.

"The task force was dispatched to exorcise it only if containment proved inviable. A Catholic priest was sent along as part of the team, and we flew in pigs all the way from Iowa so he could cast the demon into their bodies — don't laugh, it's worked before. Obviously it didn't this time, and so we resorted to burning plants and animals, even gave it wine and gold as an offering." Dr. Keller paused and tweezed the bridge of his nose as if it pained him. "They're all dead now. Slanted and Enchanted, that is. Well, you know, you read the report. We didn't… we didn't know about the area of effect it had. After that aerial and ground bombardment commenced, but it was already too late."

They were interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come in," said Dr. Keller.

A young man with a buzz cut, dressed in a uniform similar to the one Bruce had seen the guard at the gatehouse wearing last night, stepped into the office. No rifle, but a pistol was holstered on his hip. He crossed the room in four swift strides and handed a letter to Dr. Keller, then spun on his heels and left without uttering a word.

Dr. Keller tamped his pipe and lit another match. He produced a letter opener and sliced the envelope open in a single, practiced stroke and unfolded the two pages contained within. He put on his bifocals and cleared his throat.

"What?" Bruce said. "What is it?"

Dr. Keller handed the pages over to Bruce. ""We know what it is," he said.

5

The anomaly shed body parts like a molting snake shedding its skin. Arms and legs, heads and genitals — never a complete body, just the parts.

Buzzards and crows orbited in thick clouds, gliding on thermal pockets of air. Irvine couldn't see them; sunrise was still an hour or so off, but he knew they were there all the same. They were always there. It was a goddamn feast for the scavengers and carrion eaters. The skip's stench wafted for miles downwind, and everyone was answering the dinner bell. Not just the usual suspects of coyotes, raccoons and birds either; he'd also seen wolves and weasels and once he thought he'd glimpsed a mountain lion with its cubs. Their eyes reflected the headlights in green pinpoints as they moved sluggishly out of the path of the jeeps, indolent from gorging, bellies swollen with human flesh.

In addition to the body parts the skip also left behind a residue as it passed, a fetid discharge of body fluids and tissue that was the consistency of watered-down porridge. Yeah, a porridge made from blood and piss and feces and vomit and tears, thought Irvine and he shuddered. Flies buzzed and crawled in a pulsating mat on the sludge's tacky surface. A musk hog, perched by the edge, lapped up clotted strands as if taking a sip of water along a riverbank.

Irvine drove the M38 nicknamed Panar. He was once again in the lead position, flanked by Bruin and Mugger. They were under strict orders not to get within one hundred meters of the anomaly, and that was an order Irvine had no intention of disobeying. He'd seen firsthand what the anomaly was capable of. From this distance the skip sounded like a baseball stadium right after the home team wins with a walk-off homerun. It wasn't until you got closer that the ear was able to discern tonal cues of anguish and pain and terror.

Its shape was amorphous and mercurial. Irvine had seen it sprout into a skyscraper to try and swat a helicopter out of the air, and in order to bridge a box canyon it had cambered into a block with dozens of pylon legs, each roughly the size of a telephone pole. At a trailer park it changed to a spiral galaxy, spinning around its axis, protoplasmic arms cracking open trailers like they were tin cans and devouring the occupants inside. Most of the time though it seemed to prefer a tubular shape, its motion similar to caterpillar tracks. The people that made up the tread were the lucky ones — they died quickly, their bodies crushed into paste with each revolution.

The anomaly was people. Just people. A sea of bodies, thousands and thousands of them, seething and writhing, stacked on top of each other at impossible angles and staggering, vertigo-inducing heights. Stampeding. Trampling and routing and contorting. When Irvine had first seen the instance, the sight of it immediately triggered an old memory he hadn't even realized he still had. In it he was a boy of ten, maybe eleven, and his family was vacationing in Maine. They'd taken a day trip from the beach in Wells to visit Camden Hills state park. Irvine, following a strange noise, had wandered off one of the paths and away from his parents. It sounded like there was a malfunctioning electrical transformer right smack in the middle of the woods. What he found instead was a massive colony of honeybees. The hive must've recently swarmed, and they'd temporarily relocated onto the branch of a beech tree.

He'd watched the insects for close to half an hour, mesmerized by their sheer numbers and constant, frenetic turbulence.

The skip was the swarming beehive all over again. Gravity held no influence on it, and although basic logic told Irvine it couldn't move, couldn't do anything except collapse and disperse, what he witnessed with his own two eyes told a different story.

Its migration pattern implied awareness, as it typically sought out the nearest human while ignoring all other life forms, which remained unaffected by its phenomena. Early into the containment mission the skip had targeted Foundation personnel and vehicles, but quickly learned what was too fast for it to catch and gave up, intimating sentience, if of a single-minded variety. Standard possession had already been ruled out by Slanted and Enchanted, so it remained unclear what motivated the instance or how it even functioned.

Mobile Task Force Eta-8, "Man-Eaters", specialized in the capture and neutralization of both anomalous and non-anomalous humanoids, but Irvine wasn't sure this skip qualified for either category. While it was certainly made of humans, that was about as far as the similarities went, and he couldn't recall ever having such a bizarre assignment.

He again thought of the bees on the beech tree — of swarm intelligence, a decentralized global system dictating behavior and interactions with the environment. It naturally occurred in flocks of birds and schools of fish. Was that what was happening here? An emergent, atavistic behavior causing people to steer toward a random center of mass and form cohesion?

No, that wasn't it, Irvine thought as he lit another cigarette off the dog-end of the last. This couldn't be just another neural aberration because the skip had an area of effect that extended out spherically from its surface, pulling people into it. Nothing mental or imagined about that. It was like a tractor beam he'd read about once in a Buck Rogers pulp magazine. The humans trapped in it wailed and cried out for help, but that same tractor beam kept them rooted in place and adhered to one another, preventing separation.

Irvine grabbed the radio mic hooked to the dashboard. "Hey Martinez, what's our location?"

Martinez rattled off longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates that meant almost nothing to Irvine. Boyle, riding shotgun in the passenger seat, jotted them down in a notebook. He would need to relay it back to Mercury. Aerial bombardment was scheduled to recommence at daybreak.

They were on a southeast header, always southeast, approximately ninety klicks north of the Mercury forwarding base and two hundred klicks northwest of Vegas. Target Wintermute was moving at an average speed of fifteen kilometers per hour.

At that pace they'd reach Vegas around 1700 local time. Irvine was curious as to why the skip ignored the Mercury forwarding base, which was much closer than the city. If it hadn't been for its evasion of the Chimney Sweep trap explained by the Silver Creek cemetery, he would've believed that it somehow knew most of the facilities were underground and unreachable, or that they had aircraft standing by in case of evacuation. The entire staff could be in the air in under thirty minutes. But it couldn't know that, right? That would be impossible.

Boyle's walkie-talkie chirped, signaling an inbound call from Mercury. The radios on the dash were suitable for communication within Man-Eaters' formation, but at Mercury's distance it required the transmitter.

"Man-Eaters. Yes… copy that. Lieutenant, I think you're going to want to take this." Boyle extended the receiver to Irvine. "It's Mercury sir."

He figured as much. As Irvine brought the receiver to his ear, Boyle added: "They say they have positive identification on the skip."

6

After sharing dinner with Dr. Keller, Bruce was allowed some privacy to place a phone call to his wife, assuring Grace that he'd be home soon. He'd concocted an excuse that the department store was getting cold feet, threatening to pull out of the firm's advertising proposal, and as the broker of the contract Bruce had been forced to drop everything and fly to Chicago for damage-control and to try and salvage the deal. Leonard's frequent calls lent credence to the lie.

Back in the dormitory, in his room, good ole' number thirty-aught-six, Bruce stared at the blank white walls. A stack of boxes and documents that hadn't been there this morning towered in one corner, reaching halfway to the drop ceiling. All of it pertained to either the skip or the Foundation as a whole. The top file, as thick as an encyclopedia, was titled A Comprehensive Analysis of Amnestics A-D and stamped in red as Top Secret. Even if he had two weeks to spare he'd never get through it all.

Bruce had no motivation to learn further about the Foundation or its procedures; he was already suffering from an overdose of information. When he'd read the SCP file he'd blanked out on the object classification, and had been too embarrassed to ask Dr. Keller for clarification. Keter? What'd that even mean? It was naggingly familiar, and he thought Leonard might have gone over it with him during orientation, but if he did Bruce had already forgotten the definition.

The containment procedures, skeletal in their brevity, hadn't been much help either, and had essentially amounted to stay the fuck away from it. Bruce wasn't sure why they'd bothered.

He laid his head down on the scratchy pillow. The overhead room light remained on. The springs in the cot dug into his back, but he felt so exhausted he didn't think it would matter. He could've slept standing up with his eyes taped open.

"How come it took you guys so long to identify it?" he'd asked after reading over the file for a second time.

Dr. Keller had answered, "The man that wrote that has been dead for more than twenty years. There have been only five verifiable incidents, and three of them took place last century. It was only the clue from Silver Creek, that it affects deceased people, that led us to its identity. Now, I admit our filing system could use a bit of streamlining, but I hope you can understand the delay."

Bruce rolled onto his side, knees curled up. He didn't want to think about it. Less than a day ago he'd been going about his life, blissful in his ignorance of the supernatural, and now his world had been turned inside-out. Although Leonard hadn't provided specifics regarding any other anomalies the Foundation contained outside of the Wintermute target, the implications were clear. And it had slowly dawned on Bruce while he'd been listening to Leonard's deep, droning voice that not only was everything he'd believed a lie — that the bedrock of his sanity was nothing more than sand and straw — but that reality was purposefully being twisted and concealed by a global cabal.

He grabbed the side of the cot and peered over the edge.

I'll start going to shul again, he thought after confirming nothing was under the bed. That's what I'll do. And not just on Shabbat or the holidays, but everyday. Twice a day.

He tossed and turned. As worn-out as his body was his mind was racing and he couldn't shut it off. After a restless hour he decided to take a shower. Sometimes that helped him fall asleep.

Bruce shuffled out of the room and down the corridor to the communal bathroom. He disrobed and slipped into one of the shower stalls, running the water as hot as he could bare it. Still his thoughts refused to slow down, and he began deliberating on the anomaly's file again. It'd been the description that he'd found most interesting. He tried to recall the details as the water streamed through his hair and down his body.

…a phenomenon in which at least two Homo sapien (human being) torsos enter a state of physical attraction to one another. This attraction is comparable in strength to a magnetic field intensity estimated at 12 Teslas, or 12 Wb/m 2, causing the torsos to adhere to each other at points of contact. The phenomenon is communicable, spreading to any human torso which comes within a 5m spherical radius of an instance.

It is unknown what causes an event to trigger or end. The only viable means to manually initiate termination is the complete and utter cremation of all impacted torsos.

Directional movement appears to be based on human population size, density and proximity, regardless of distance or line of sight. Vectors have displayed a preference for the nearest and most concentrated populaces. Aberrations in this directional pattern have been observed at an occurrence rate of approximately 35%. The variables which cause these aberrations are currently unknown, although evidence supports both inaccessibility and velocity of targeted humans as factors.

While movement appears to be motivated by growth, instances exhibit no collective or group consciousness, and interviews with affected survivors have substantiated a lack of anomalous changes in cognitive function. Participants describe having no control over their movement, and instances display little to no self-preservation. It is also unknown how instances are able to generate and maintain locomotion, as the cessation of human life has no impact on the speed or mobility of an instance. The highest recorded speed of an instance was measured at 40 kilometers per hour.

That wasn't it, not exactly word-for-word, but his paraphrasing was pretty damn close. During the briefing Leonard had shown him black-and-white footage of the skip rampaging through a small town, shot by the Foundation several days prior. The film was grainy and frequently swam out of focus — that, combined with its shaky handheld quality, hadn't made much of an impression on Bruce. It looked fake, the special effects for the people and houses way worse than the stop-motion miniatures in King Kong, and for a split second he'd wondered that someone wasn't playing the most expensive and elaborate prank in history on him.

Even after seeing it he still couldn't wrap his head around the basic concept. Tens of thousands of people in motion, packed like sardines, stacked like cordwood. His imagination wouldn't permit the tableau to be completed, he just wasn't designed that way, and the closest he could conjure was a crowd of people, which was about as far off from the truth as you could get while still being in the neighborhood.

Bruce turned the faucet off and stepped out of the shower, fingers pruned and skin flushed. He grabbed a towel from a rack. The bathroom was empty save for himself. In fact, he hadn't seen another resident of the dorms during his short stay, not even in passing. He cinched the towel around his waist and returned to his room.

He flopped onto the bed, the frame groaning under his weight. Again, he didn't turn off the light. He told himself he'd just forgotten to and now it was out of laziness, he was already lying down and didn't want to get back up, but he knew the real reason, and he couldn't stop himself from leaning over the side and looking under the bed, making sure nothing was lurking under there since the last time he'd checked.

7

They were approaching the point of no return — once they crossed that invisible threshold nuclear detonation would have a greater likelihood of irradiating Vegas, flash-frying cameos into the walls of the Fabulous Flamingo casino and along the strip. Already they were close enough that, depending on the wind, a bomb could bathe the city and the surrounding suburbs in radioactive fallout.

Irvine waited for the helicopter to land, shielding his eyes as the rotors stirred the sand around him. It was four hours past sunrise. New orders had been handed down from Mercury: he was going to rendezvous with the bird, while the rest of the convoy was headed back to the forwarding base. Conventional aerial bombardment had once again failed to stop the skip. If they'd had more time they could've coordinated another bombing run, but if they waited any longer it would shelve the nuclear option.

Command had decided to go with the latter.

According to its file — which Mercury had rattled off to him over the radio — the longest recorded instance of the anomaly had lasted less than five hours before inexplicably dissipating. Well, this instance had lasted over five days and it showed no signs of slowing down. They couldn't sit back, twiddle their thumbs and hope that it would somehow miraculously expire between now and when it was scheduled to arrive in Vegas.

They'd waited too long, spent too much time on abortive containment attempts, wasted two whole days on an exorcism and supplication, then another two days on the Chimney Sweep debacle. When the instance had crossed into Nevada from Oklahoma, they'd tried to corral it in an enclosure, the walls of which were built from shipping containers, prefab trailers, and even a diner and the caboose of a train. Anything they could get their hands on that was large, durable, and generally square. What part of the skip hadn't poured over the enclosure simply smashed through, ripping steel as if it was tissue paper. By the time the Foundation issued the order for termination the anomaly had already passed through half the state, and the MTF was left scrambling for heavier firepower.

The skids of the helicopter touched down. It was carrying gasoline for the convoy that was promptly unloaded. Irvine planted one hand on top of his hat to keep it on his head, and shook Kontos's hand with the other. His sergeant would be in command of Man-Eaters until his return.

"Take care of yourself," Kontos said.

"You too," Irvine replied. He climbed into the helicopter through the passenger door, swearing at himself that if he died, "You too" would be remembered by the task force as his last words. Why couldn't he have come up with something clever and empowering? Like "Death and destruction!" or "For Christ's sake men—come on! Do you want to live forever!" or even "Nuts!", only… original and relevant to the situation.

He saluted his men as the bird took off across the desert, the helicopter's shadow playing on the flat below. Almost everyone in the unit had volunteered for this last stretch, but Irvine had refused. It didn't feel right, not seeing the mission through to the end. Besides, now that he knew they were all safe and returning to base for some hot food and much-deserved rest, he could finally let go of the paternal anxiety that always weighed heavily on him while leading troops in combat.

The pilot indicated for him to put on a pair of headphones. Irvine obliged, fitting the cans over his head beneath his Resistol. He heard communication chatter sandwiched between layers of static. The pilot then handed him a blue pill wrapped in foil.

"It's iodine," he informed Irvine. "Helps protect the thyroid from absorbing radiation."

Irvine hurriedly swallowed it down with a chaser from his canteen.

Target Wintermute was two klicks ahead, biting and clawing its nebulous mass toward Las Vegas. The city was a little over one hundred kilometers to the southeast. The skip was accelerating as it drew closer, traveling at twenty kilometers per hour, and that number was rising steadily, like it could smell the approaching fifty thousand residents.

Irvine's orders were to mark the target and supply coordinates to the B-29 Superfortress plane that'd be delivering the package "Able", a one kiloton-yield nuclear bomb. He was then to observe from a safe distance to provide visual confirmation of detonation and update the status of the target.

It'd be the first nuclear detonation in the continental US since the Manhattan Project conducted Trinity, in New Mexico, during World War Two.

The B-29 would make its approach at an altitude of seven miles. It would take the bomb a full minute to descend. At that height the bombardier probably wouldn't be able to spot the skip, despite its immense size. That was where Irvine came in. The boys back at the lab had cooked up a high-frequency beacon that would transmit its location via megahertz radio pulses aimed at the B-29's firing mechanism. All they had to do was hone in on it and the payload would automatically release.

That was if the beacon worked. It was all theoretical, and Mercury had been evasive when Irvine inquired about the efficacy of its range. It seemed doubtful that the thing could squirt an accurate broadcast seven miles out. The device was a reflective cylinder weighing in at twenty pounds with three telescopic antennae.

The helicopter glided over the anomaly, careful to stay out of its reach. The bombardment earlier that morning had set it ablaze with a partial hit. A column of smoke rose into the sky. Maybe it will aid the B-29 in locating it, thought Irvine. The skip was a crisped marshmallow, its surface scorched and bubbling. Greasy flames licked its edges, and rivers of molten fat sluiced off its sides and dripped like melted candle wax. By now most of it was dead, but it kept rolling on. The bodies — it was easier to think of them that way, instead of actual people with lives and families — were naked, clothes rubbed away by friction. Their skin, where it wasn't broken or charred, was fire-engine red, baked by the Nevada sun. Except for the few that still clung to life, the ones that hadn't died in the bombing had perished from suffocation and blunt-force trauma.

The only confirmed way to halt an instance was the complete incineration of the torsos. But even at one thousand degrees centigrade it could take up to an hour to thoroughly burn a human adult body. And there were so many bodies that Irvine wasn't convinced Able would do the trick. It would vaporize some of them, sure, maybe even most, but it also might just scatter the rest, and instead of a single anomaly they'd be left chasing multiple radioactive skips.

As he stared Irvine saw a woman gnawing on a hand, lips frothing as she worked her mouth around a stubborn finger bone. Her eyes were wide and glassy, nothing behind them except a feral madness. It was impossible to tell whose hand it belonged to. Maybe it was her own.

Then she was gone, replaced by a new set of faces, spinning like the reels of a slot machine…

Even high up he could smell it, a broth of human secretions and putrid flesh, now with the added flavors of broiled meat and a soupcon of burnt hair. Irvine resisted the urge to retch, salivary glands pumping, working overtime. He shook a Winston from the pack, hissing as he lit it and inhaled deeply and exhaled through his nose, trying to block out the stench.

They were now hovering directly above the skip. It roared beneath them, that stadium cheer, rah-rah, only he could make out individual voices in the rabble. They begged to be killed, pleaded for help, for God, for their mother. Someone kept repeating the name Donald over and over again. Others just howled like a pack of rabid dogs, and buried under it all was the porcine squeal of a bawling infant.

Irvine gripped the beacon and leaned out the door, his right boot balanced on the skid. He screwed his eyes shut, hair whipping and tears streaming at his temples.

It's just the wind and the sun. Don't listen to them. Don't listen…

He couldn't help it, though. Slanted and Enchanted is down there, somewhere, he thought. The whole goddamn unit, trapped in that abomination, that living obscenity. And they're not just another face in the crowd you can ignore and forget. You knew them. Hell, some of them were your friends.

He swung the beacon up and out, letting go at the apogee of its arc. It was the only thing he could do now to try and help Slanted and Enchanted. He knew if their positions were reversed he'd pray for the release of death.

The beacon spun ass over tea kettle, down, down, until it was swallowed by the instance.

"Beacon away," the pilot announced into his microphone, and yanked on the cyclic control while his feet played with the pedals. The bird responded, dipping its nose and yawing before banking to the west, away from the anomaly.

"Roger that," Mercury replied on the other end. "Able is green. Man-Eaters, what is your location?"

Irvine returned to his seat. He was surprised at how calm and in control his voice sounded. "Man-Eaters actual. We are… uh… three-six-point-four-niner-three-two north and one-one-five-point-niner-five-eight-eight-three west." He repeated the location for verification.

"Mercury this is Poundstone," crackled a new voice in the headphones. "Cruising at thirty-one thousand feet. Bomb is armed and primed."

Poundstone was the Boeing Superfortress bomber. Irvine tried looking for it through the windscreen. It'd be coming from the base's airstrip to the south. He thought he glimpsed a heliogram as the sun reflected off its fuselage, but it might've been his imagination.

"Copy, Poundstone. You're green from Mercury."

"Roger that. Green for Able. Poundstone closing in on target, ETA two minutes."

"Man-Eaters, you're to reach safe distance and then maintain position for visual confirmation of detonation."

"Copy Mercury," replied the pilot, throttling the joystick between his knees.

Minimum safe distance was two miles.

8

Dr. Keller hung up the phone and passed a shaking hand over his face. "They did it. They actually did it," he said. "Sohn einer Hündin! They dropped an atomic bomb."

"What?" Bruce said. "When?"

"Ten minutes ago."

"On Vegas?" he asked.

"No," Dr. Keller said. "About fifty miles from it."

"You… you have access to that sort of thing?"

Dr. Keller snorted. "Who do you think invented it?"

Bruce sat back, stunned. "Could they see it?" he managed to say.

"See it? They could feel it."

The desk was covered in a drift of newspapers from across the country. All of the front pages featured banner headlines about the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States, accompanied by photographs of towns in Nevada destroyed by tornados. The death toll was in the tens of thousands and expected to climb. It was the greatest loss of life on US soil since the Civil War. Initial estimates reported damages above fifty million dollars.

"Did it work?"

Dr. Keller took a nervous draw from his pipe. "It hasn't been confirmed, since the site is still hot. Preliminary reports indicate success, but personnel are also hesitant to go into the area, not just because of the radiation, but if the instance is still active and someone gets within range — if someone gets within range of its area of effect they'd be feeding it a new torso, and the process could start all over again."

"These amnesiac drugs you told me about…" said Bruce.

"Amnestics."

"Right, amnestics. What if we put it in the Vegas water supply?"

"Lake Mead?" Dr. Keller stroked the stubble on his chin. "No, that won't work."

"Why not?"

"I'm just guessing, but Lake Mead must have billions of gallons of water." He ticked the reasons off on his fingers as he went along. "Even if we had enough water soluble amnestics — which we don't — there would be no way to control the administration. You'd be giving children the same dosage strength as an adult. People would be showering and cooking with it. Watering their lawns. Giving it to their pets. And Lake Mead isn't just the water supply for Vegas. It also feeds into most of Arizona and even parts of California. No, no it won't work."

"What about air dispersal?"

"There's a prototype, but you run into the same problem. Quantity and administration. No, I don't see any way of erasing the memories of fifty thousand people. Even if we were able to, a nuclear explosion leaves behind physical evidence. Most of the radioactive isotopes have a half life of only a couple of days, but there are others that last for centuries. As we speak, fallout is being blown into Utah. And if the Soviets don't already know about the detonation, they will soon."

"You're telling me there's no way to hide the fact that we just dropped a nuke," Bruce said.

Dr. Keller sighed. "I don't see any."

"Then we don't deny it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean we have to admit we dropped it. You said it yourself that we can't hide it and we can't erase their memories. What option does that leave us? We need to come out ahead of this thing. Tell the public we dropped a nuclear bomb."

"In the backyard of a major population center? While we're at it, why don't we tell them there weren't any tornados."

Bruce had barely slept in the past two days and wasn't in the mood to trade barbs. If they wanted his advice on how to spin this he'd give it the old college try, especially if it meant he got to go home sooner, but in order to do that they had to listen. "We tell them it was a scheduled test," he said. "That it was planned far in advanced and perfectly executed."

"With no prior warning to the community."

Bruce waved the comment off. "There was plenty of communication preceding the detonation. How many people do you have like me, who work for the Foundation that we can use, living in the Nevada area?"

"I don't know for sure — I'd have to check. Not many. Probably fifty, maybe a hundred. Certainly no more than that."

"It's not enough. You may have to pay some people off to say that they knew about the test. Prominent figures. We'll put handbills in past newspapers, say… two weeks ago. You're going to have to control the media somehow. Broadcasters, radio pundits, news anchors. They have to sell this for us like it was completely ordinary and expected. When Bob comes into the office on Monday morning complaining about the explosion over the weekend, I want his coworkers to tell him they all knew about the test ahead of time and had even discussed it in the break room on Friday. He was there, didn't he remember? In two weeks time Bob will actually believe that he knew about it, too."

"Who's Bob?"

"He's a figment of my imagination, Felix. I made him up as an example."

"Isn't that a bit convenient though? The US government just happens to drop an A-Bomb in Nevada the same day the worst natural disaster in history — tornados that are also in Nevada — ends?"

"So get some meteorologist to claim that the bomb created a change in the atmosphere that caused the storm cells to dissipate. I don't know, I'm not a scientist, but it seems a plausible explanation, and one that will make the residents view the testing positively."

Dr. Keller bit the inside of his cheek. "It could work…"

"It will work," corrected Bruce. "But we need to drop more."

"What?"

"One detonation isn't a test, it's a mistake. But if we drop more, people will assume the first wasn't an accident."

"More?" sputtered Dr. Keller. "More? Did you hear what I said? The fallout is getting pushed into Utah."

"I heard what you said. And I also heard you say that we didn't know if the first one was successful or not. So I'm saying drop another one. Hell, drop two or three more."

Dr. Keller shook his head vigorously, but Bruce knew he'd already won. They were backed into a corner with no other way out.

"One maybe," Dr. Keller said. "But more? I can't believe the residents of Las Vegas would stand for it."

"Sure they will," he persisted. "We'll advertise it as a tourist attraction. 'Come to Vegas and Celebrate the Fourth of July with the biggest fireworks display in the world.' That sort of thing. We'll make it patriotic and good for business. And the locals will eat it up."

9

The helicopter was shielded and didn't dive into a tailspin following the EMP blast. It shook and rattled with the shockwave, an alarm blared and Irvine felt like he'd been set to the tumble dry setting, but they retained their altitude.

After the blistering, trillion-watt flashbulb receded, he hazarded a glance. A pillowy mushroom cloud, like a volcanic eruption, rose into the stratosphere three miles away.

"Detonation confirmed," the pilot reported with awe.

"Copy, Man-Eaters. Please verify Target Wintermute has been neutralized."

"Negative, Mercury," Irvine said. "We do not have eyes on target. It appears to be a direct hit, but if there's anything left to see of Wintermute it's obscured."

"Copy. We're en route to you. Maintain a holding pattern around the impact site at a safe distance and report any change in status."

"Roger that."

The bird described a wide circle around the stem of the cloud, both pilot and passenger scanning the ground for any signs of life. There was nothing except for burning sagebrush and pinon-juniper, and a mirror shine where sand had fused to glass. Irvine wondered just how safe they really were this close to ground zero. The windows of the helicopter appeared to be polarized, but he doubted that would stop gamma rays. A creeping dose of radiation — dying only after several agonizing days, spraying blood from both ends and having his hair and fingernails fall out, wasn't exactly Irvine's ideal way to go.

He voiced his concerns. Mercury reassured him: "You're definitely soaking up more than is recommended, probably two or three years' worth of normal background radiation in a couple of minutes, but you should be okay. It's like having a couple of x-rays at the hospital. Just wait until we arrive and we'll get you out of there."

Irvine wasn't so sure about that, but he was too tired to argue. "Yeah, and how long is that going to be?" he said.

"We have a team already in the area. Ten minutes, tops."

Ten minutes. Ten more minutes. He could handle that. Then, as long as the skip didn't re-emerge suddenly like the villain at the end of a bad horror film, he'd go through radioactive decontamination for the next several days. As the commanding officer in the field he was also required to write up an after-action report for the Foundation's records. When it was all said and done he was probably looking at another week before he could go home.

10

"I have some good news for you," Dr. Keller said to Bruce on Sunday morning, as they ate breakfast in his office. "You'll be going home shortly — in another hour or two, I'd say. The SOC has approved our proposition."

He tapped a newspaper with a yellowed, nicotine-stained finger. It was the Las Vegas Sun. The front-page story pertained to the Atomic Energy Commission and the US Department of Energy commencing nuclear testing — as scheduled — at the new Nevada Test Site. The paper conveniently contained another copy of the handbill it purported to have originally published seventeen days earlier.

WARNING

January 11, 1951

From this day forward the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission has been authorized to use part of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range for test work necessary to the atomic weapons development program.

Test activities will include experimental nuclear detonations for the development of atomic bombs — so called "A-Bombs" — carried out under controlled conditions.

Tests will be conducted on a routine basis for an indefinite period.

NO PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE TIME OF ANY TEST WILL BE MADE

Unauthorized persons who pass inside the limits of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range may be subject to inquiry from or as a result of the AEC test activites.

Health and safety authorities have determined that no danger from or as a result of AEC test activities may be expected outside the limits of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range. All necessary precautions, including radiological surveys and patrolling of the surrounding territory, will be undertaken to insure that safety conditions are maintained.

Full security restrictions of the Atomic Energy Act will apply to the work of this area.

RALPH P. JOHNSON, Project Manager
Las Vegas Project Office
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission

"Pretty good," Bruce said, bobbing his head.

"It's the work of our Red Herrings team. Television and radio news broadcasts will be doling out much of the same. Funding has also been set aside for the paid consent of prominent local figures — politicians and businessmen, people in the entertainment industry, as well as a random assortment of individuals who display a proclivity toward subornation. Another detonation is planned for later today. We still have a lot of work ahead of us in regards to the clean up, but we were extremely lucky, all things considered. The Foundation's base in Mercury is to be scrubbed clean and will be turned over to the federal government, along with the surrounding land. All of it's going to be consolidated under the Nellis Air Force base."

"How were we lucky?"

Dr. Keller said, "The United States has been seeking continental atomic weapon testing ever since the end of the Pacific theater, and initial surveys indicate the Frenchman Flat — where we dropped the bomb — is suitable for both atmospheric and underground detonations. That, in combination with its relative seclusion and lack of flora and fauna make it a favorable location for continued testing."

"Except of course for the people living nearby in Las Vegas."

"Of course."

"So really it couldn't have happened in a better place," Bruce said.

"It's unfortunate, but under the circumstances… yes."

Bruce would never remember his three days spent at the Foundation compound. On his return flight home he helped himself to the wet bar in the passenger cabin's galley, indulging in the wide selection of whiskey that was available. The alcohol was laced with a Class-C amnestic. He awoke on Interstate-84 in the backseat of a cab. He had a splitting headache and reeked of booze. His mouth tasted as if he'd been eating out of a dumpster.

The time on his watch had been forwarded three hours to match the Eastern Time Zone. Aware of the clasp's loose pin, they'd been much more careful this time.

11

OPERATION RANGER

STATUS REPORT

ecd.png

FOUNDATION OVERSIGHT COMMAND

CLASSIFICATION: Top Secret

MEMORANDUM FOR: Operation Ranger

Date: 02/02/1951

From: Wesley Peebles, S.O.W., C.S.D
L4 FD Div Operations and Strategy

To: Jeffrey Campbell, O5

Target: Confirmed TERMINATION of target WINTERMUTE. No reported sighting or activity of target since initial nuclear bomb ABLE detonation on January 27, 1951. All subsequent projects of operation have CEASED except for the continuation of TOPEKA and initiation of BLUE BLINDERS.

Resource Assessment: MTF Epsilon-4 ("Slanted and Enchanted") status updated to KIA for all members. MTF Eta-8 ("Man-Eaters") suffered 0 casualties and is available for active duty. MTF Gamma-5 ("Red Herrings") is currently ENGAGED with projects TOPEKA and BLUE BLINDERS.

Outcome: Loss of civilian life and property has been severe. DEATH TOLL currently estimated at 77214 and impact zone spans from western OKLAHOMA throughout a majority of NEVADA. Clean up and repair expected to take 3-5 YEARS and potentially cost one BILLION dollars US currency. Financial burden shifted to personal, insurance, US taxpayer and STATE/FEDERAL government agencies.

OPERATION RANGER continues as nuclear test series. Scheduled tests are as follows:

Name Yield Status
Baker 8 kilotons Detonation January, 28 1951.
Easy 1 kiloton Detonation February 1, 1951.
Baker 2 8 kilotons Approved. Date TBD.
Fox 22 kilotons Approved. Date TBD.
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