The World That Ends In Fire – Chapter 5


After a week of studying corpses, Hanna began to wish for a zombie apocalypse.

The regeneration effect that had been so mind blowing the first day was still the primary focus of the Ghost Walker Expedition, but Hanna’s contribution to the research was limited to the most basic of lab assistant work.

“So you’re saying you’d prefer to be elbows deep in withered dead person guts?” Kimberly asked as they prepared another set of sample bags.

“Shockingly enough, I was thinking that a degree in astrophysics might involve more star watching and number crunching than grave robbing and full body vivisections,” Hanna said.

“Shows what you know,” Kimberly said.

“Yeah, I totally shouldn’t have comp’d out of Frankenstein 101,” Hanna said, addressing the plastic bag in her hand to the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. “What I don’t get is why you’re so okay with this?”

“There are benefits to being here,” Kimberly said a small smile creeping across her face.

Hanna saw Simon carrying a box of equipment to the current excavation site. He threw a nod in their direction but the smile that came with it was aimed squarely at Kimberly.

“Oh right,” she said. “The extracurriculars. How could I forget.”

Kimberly slugged her mildly in the shoulder.

“Not just that. We’re surrounded by some of the top scientists in the world here.”

“None of whom have any time for us,” Hanna said.

“Sure they do,” Kimberly said. “Professor Ajayi talked with me just this morning.”

“Uh, ‘Can you get me the reports from Professor Stein’, does not count as talking to you,” Hanna said. “He could have started it with ‘Hey Siri,’ and gotten the same results if the reports were online.”

“That’s not true,” Kimberly said. “The WiFi is crappy here. Siri doesn’t work for beans.”

“Come on, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t rather be finishing your research project,” Hanna said.

“I don’t know. My research feels so tiny now.”

“We were literally investigating the cosmos before,” Hanna said. “There’s nothing bigger than that!”

“Yeah, yeah, it was huge stuff. This just feels larger than all that somehow. Do you know what I mean?” Kimberly asked.

“It’s because we have more references for the scale of what we’re facing here,” Dr. Tishone said, joining in the conversation late as she entered the mobile support tent. “Stellar nebula and galactic black holes dwarf any perception of size that we can work with. At best we can stretch our imaginations to try to conceive of how vast they are, but we can never really experience anything on that scale.”

“I don’t know that I could have imagined something like this until I got here,” Hanna said.

“Precisely,” Dr. Tishone said. “Without living in it, even something as small as this doesn’t feel real to us. It’s just how we’re wired as humans.”

“It’s more than that though,” Kimberly said. “We’re here with people from every continent. I mean they even brought in researchers from Antarctica! It’s like the whole world is converging on this spot and we’re a part of what’s happening.”

“A part with sharpies and clear plastic bags,” Hanna said.

“Is that grumbling I hear from the ranks?” Dr. Tishone asked.

“No,” Hanna said. “Well, yes. It just feels like we could be doing so much more! I mean, even leaving astrophysics out of equation, we’ve got training in a dozen different disciplines we could draw on.”

“But nowhere near the level of the experts in those disciplines that we’ve shipped in,” Kimberly said.

“That’s correct,” Dr. Tishone said. “Both of your points, that is. We’re not being as efficient as we could here. That’s almost a truism under the current circumstances. This is too big an operation and it was setup too quickly for the expedition to use its resources at full capacity.”

“So how do we make it more efficient then?” Hanna asked.

“There’s only one real option if you want a job done right,” Dr. Tishone said.

“Kimberly might be able to barge onto the dig site and start handling things herself, but I’m pretty sure our good friend Sergeant Garcia would shoot me if I tried that,” Hanna said.

“Then don’t barge onto the dig site,” Dr. Tishone said. “You’re in the middle of hundreds of square kilometers of the most scientifically interesting land on the planet. I didn’t bring you here because you make excellent envelope addressers. You’re young and clever, so put some of those classes you’ve slogged through to use and find something new to investigate here.”

Hanna didn’t have a good comeback for that. There were over a hundred people attached to the expedition already. The voice of criticism in her head told her that there wasn’t anything special she’d be able to bring to a team like that. They already had all the important bits of the site under their microscopes.

Hanna knew that voice though and she hated it. It was the same voice that told her she’d never make it to college because her grades weren’t good enough and she didn’t have as many extracurricular activities as her more successful classmates. It was the voice that told her graduate school was going to crush her. That she could never hope to earn a position under a prestigious advisor. That no matter what victories she ever achieved, she would never really be good enough and that someone else, someone with real skill and intelligence, would always be better.

The only answer she could give that voice was to kick it in the teeth. It wasn’t always an option of course. Somedays her self-doubt had on bigger boots than her confidence did, but after a week of getting pushed farther and farther to the sidelines, the urge to do something more than write on sample bags had a lot of built up strength behind it.

“When are these actually needed for?” Hanna asked, holding up the next blank shipping container.

“Tomorrow morning,” Kimberly said, the same wheels turning behind her eyes that were spinning in Hanna’s head.

“And how many do we have left to do?” Hanna asked.

“About a hundred and twenty for tomorrow it looks like and then another thousand for the day after that,” Kimberly said.

“Think you can get some new gophers in to handle the thousand?” Hanna asked Dr. Tishone.

“That all depends on what my current gophers have in mind.”

“We’ve been focusing on the cemetery this whole time,” Hanna said. “But it was surrounded by buildings. If strange things are happening in the cemetery then maybe there’s something we can find in the area right outside it too!”

“And that’s exactly why I brought you along,” Dr. Tishone said.

“So the only question is do we stuff these bags and do them later or behave like responsible adults?” Kimberly asked.

“Given that I need the results from at last a dozen of those, I suggest you consider the answer to that question carefully,” Dr. Tishone said.

An hour later, Hanna and Kimberly, with Kalia in tow were marching out towards the perimeter of the cemetery’s remains.

“It’s going to be dark reasonably soon,” Kalia said.

“The expedition will be working through the night,” Kimberly said. “I don’t think they’re going to miss us.

“I was pointing out that we have a limited time before we’ll be exploring by flashlight,” Kalia said.

Hanna wasn’t certain why Dr. Tishone had asked Kalia to accompany them. Jokes about a zombie apocalypse aside, the area around the cemetery was not exactly swarming with hostile encounters. In the distance, Hanna could see some of the other expeditions that had been dispatched to other points of interest in the remains of Tokyo but it wasn’t like someone was going to sneak up on them. Aside from the random outcropping of the gray crystals, there was a clear field of vision that extended as far as Hanna could see.

“We’ll make the best use of the daylight that we have and then come back over the areas we’ve inspected once the sun sets,” Hanna said.

“You’re going to cover a lot less ground like that,” Kalia said. Despite the lack of any obvious threats the soldier was maintaining a constant watch on what few details there were to observe.

“We can use different lights at night, and borrow some of the night vision gear to see if anything new stands out,” Hanna said, thinking of the sky surveys she’d been reviewing that imaged the stars she selected in various wave lengths. It wasn’t quite the same as shining a UV flashlight at the ground and seeing what fluoresced but the principals weren’t entirely unrelated either.

“Just so long as we don’t wake the dead,” Kalia said.

“We’ve been poking and prodding them for a week now,” Hanna said. “I think if they were going to wake up, they probably would have done so when we started cutting them to pieces and shipping the bits to labs all over the world.”

“I don’t know, I bet we’d get much more exciting assignments if the entire cemetery got up and decided it was BrainFest 2015 time,” Kimberly said.

“That kind of excitement I can live without,” Kalia said. “We’re taught to shoot for the target’s center of mass. Headshots are lot harder than they look in the movies.”

“So are we going to ruin all of my fun action movie fantasies or should we be looking for something specific out here?” Kimberly asked.

“We should be looking for something generally specific,” Hanna said.

“Well that’s helpful,” Kimberly said.

“Think of this as an alien landscape,” Hanna said.

“That’s not particularly challenging,” Kalia said.

“There’s a lot of things here that we’d expect to see,” Hanna said. “Concrete, steel, rock and soil. Look for the things that we wouldn’t expect to find. Anything that falls into that category is something we need to investigate further.”

“Would that include things like giant gray crystals?” Kalia asked, gesturing to one of the nearby upthrusts of the strange, translucent structures.

“We’ve got a dozen teams looking into those already and no one’s turning up anything that makes sense yet,” Hanna said. “I think where we can be helpful is to ignore the obvious new mysteries that are begging for our attention and focus on the little things that everyone else is overlooking. We might find something really big that way.”

“We have a plan!” Kimberly said.

Two hours later, as the sun finished setting, their plan had turned up a number of curiosities but nothing that either Hanna or Kimberly felt added up to enough to bring the other researchers in on.

“We’ll have to go back for the night vision gear soon,” Kalia said.

“So far all we have to show for our effort is some odd patterns in the wreckage. Do we really think it’s worth poking around out here more?” Kimberly asked.

“My eyes are starting to glaze over, so maybe we should grab some dinner before we continue on,” Hanna said. “I do want to come back though. The scatter lines we’re finding at the edge of park have got to mean something.”

“They do seem kind of weird,” Kalia said. “It’s almost like a whole lot of bombs were set off, one after the other.”

“But the trajectory of the lines isn’t consistent,” Kimberly said.

“Yeah, and that’s what bothers me,” Hanna said. “It’s one set of lines through each of the pieces that we’ve recovered, all parallel within each piece, but completely irregular from piece to piece.”

“You’re thinking whatever scored the material that we’ve found should have come from one direction?” Kimberly asked.

“What if it was like a sandstorm?” Kalia asked. “That can blow from a lot of different directions at once.”

“That would work, except we know that the Effect was nearly instantaneous. One second Tokyo was fine, the next it was a pancake,” Hanna said.

“Do we know that?” Kimberly asked.

“We lost contact with all communications from Tokyo at once,” Kalia said.

“Wait, you’re right,” Hanna said. “We lost contact with Tokyo in an instant, but whatever happened here could have taken longer than that. Maybe a few seconds or more. How could we tell?”

“No one reported that,” Kalia said.

“People on the edge of the Effect reported a bright flash and by the time their vision cleared, Tokyo was gone,” Hanna said. “We’ve been assuming that it was instantaneous but if it happened over the course of even a couple of seconds that changes what we’re looking at a lot.”

“How so?” Kalia asked.

“The marks,” Kimberly said. “They could all be going in the same direction after all.”

“Exactly!” Hanna said. “Come on, let’s find some bigger pieces that have them. If we put them together like they would have been when Tokyo was standing I bet it shows us something important.”

“Important like what?” Kalia asked.

“Important like a common direction for the blast force,” Hanna said.

“Would that possibly be straight up?” Kimberly asked, an odd tone of disquiet warbling through her voice.

“Possibly, why is….that,” Hanna asked.

She stumbled on the last word as she raised her eyes to follow Kimberly’s gaze.

High in the sky, and larger than the moon by far, a pale and partially translucent celestial body hung. The Earth had never been alone in the universe, but now it was no longer alone in it’s own orbital path.