News of the second Phantom Quake hit the Ghost Walker Expedition like a lightning strike. Rather than dispersing from a single point of communication it tore through the camp at light speed, carried by Google Alerts and Tweets and instant messages.
Within fifteen minutes, pictures were beginning to pour out of new Effect Zone, and work on the various projects within the Tokyo region ground to a halt.
“It’s the same,” Kimberly said. “All those people. Gone.”
The flattened wasteland in the photos that made it onto the internet depicted a scene shockingly familiar to Hanna. She’d spent weeks seeing little but the same kind of unearthly devastation which those photos captured. After the initial shock wore off though she noticed one critical difference in the new Effect Zone.
“No, it’s not the same,” she said and pulled up a handful of other images that were being reposted and rebroadcast from Buenos Aires.
“Oh my god, you’re right,” Kalia said, looking over Hanna’s shoulder at the new images that were coming up.
“There’s no crystals there,” Hanna said. “Dr. Tishone!”
The three women raced from the tent where they’d been finishing dinner towards the central command tent. They were far from the only ones that course of action occurred to though.
“Calm! People! Remain calm!” Dr. Tishone said. “Don’t make me fire any more warning shots over your heads.”
“I think we can excuse a bit of boisterousness under the circumstances,” Professor Ajayi said.
“Yes, but not here and not now,” Dr. TIshone said. “We’re all professionals. Now is when we show the world what that means.”
“I don’t think the world’s paying any attention to us at the moment,” one of the undergrads in the crowd said.
“Not at the moment,” Dr. Tishone said. “For the next several days, we’re going to be working out our response to this. We have two sites to investigate now and there are transport planes waiting on standby to take a subset of the researchers we have here off to continue their work in Buenos Aires.”
“How could you have that setup already?” one of the researchers asked.
“We’ve known since the data came in on the UCE that this was a real possibility,” General Kinomoto, Dr. Tishone’s military contact, said. “With the aid of the Japanese Self Defense Force, we proceeded to prepare for this eventuality.”
“But we only got that data this morning?” Professor Ajayi said.
“The data this morning brought our forces to rapid deployment readiness,” General Kinomoto said. “The idea that what happened to Tokyo might happen elsewhere in the world has been on the table for discussion since approximately two minutes after we were alerted to the tragedy that occurred here.”
“We’re going to need to maintain a presence on this site,” Dr. Tishone said. “We have ongoing experiments and the investigations at Buenos Aires may suggest new avenues of research to be carried out here too.”
“There’s one thing we’re not going to need here,” Dr. Hoyer, the German researcher who’d sat near Hanna for the morning briefing, said. “Our research into the regenerating dead is finished.”
“What have you discovered?” Dr. Tishone said.
“Nothing new,” Dr. Hoyer said. “And we won’t be finding anything new either. The bodies are gone.”
Silence reigned for no more than two seconds, but to Hanna it felt like it was an hour before Dr. Tishone finally spoke.
“All of the bodies, or just the one’s we’ve been examining?” she asked.
“All of the exposed ones,” Dr Hoyer said. “I’m having my assistants unearth one of the graves we haven’t opened yet.”
“Contact the labs which we’ve sent samples to,” Dr. Tishone said. “Verify the status of the tissue which was outside the Effect Zones.”
“Of course,” Dr Hoyer said, and turned to his cell phone.
“We’re probably going to find a lot of things like that in the coming days,” Dr. Tishone said. “Results that we never expected, things we didn’t plan or account for. We have to roll with that. We’ve got two identical sites to investigate, except we know they won’t be identical. There’s going to be differences, and those differences might help us explain everything that’s going on.”
“We know one difference already,” Hanna said, a near crippling bout of stage fright racing to freeze her nerves before she could speak further. With the same bullish obstinacy that she approached her least interesting school assignments with, she pushed forward while she had the crowd’s attention. “There are no crystals showing up. In the pictures from Buenos Aires. It’s just a huge flattened area, but no gray crystals.”
“Is that right?” Dr. Tishone asked. Dozens of people pulled up their cell phones or tablets and started searching the pictures from the disaster site.
“What are the earliest pictures we have of the Tokyo Effect Zone?” Dr. Hoyer asked. “Did the crystals appear here immediately or did they grow over time?”
“They were here in the earliest pictures that we have, from a few minutes after the disaster,” Dr. Stein, a wiry grey haired radiation expert, said without looking up from his tablet. “They’ve exhibited no discernible growth since then.”
“I’m sorry, but that doesn’t seem to be correct any longer,” Sergeant Simon Garcia said from the entrance to the tent. “I’ve been asked to get Dr. Stein and Dr. Winston immediately. Their team needs them at the crystal excavation site immediately.”
“The crystals are growing?” Dr. Tishone asked.
“You could say that,” Simon said. “Take a look out here.”
There was a mass exodus from the tent which reminded Hanna of several concerts she’d been to. There was less swearing and pushing but the press of bodies to get outside was just as inefficient.
Once she managed to get through the open tent flaps that served as a door of sorts to the meeting tent, Hanna saw what Simon had been referring too.
The gray crystals were growing slowly but visibly. Given the building-like size some of them had achieved during the first Phantom Quake, the fact that they were visibly changing size meant that they were adding a staggering amount of mass to their structure each second.
“Get measurement crews and documentation going immediately,” Dr. Tishone said. I want an open feed on our data about this and about the corpses we were studying.”
“Is that wise?” Professor Ajayi asked. “We might start a panic if we do that.”
Ajayi paused as he finished speaking and held his index finger up to cover his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he quickly added. “That may have been the least sensible thing I’ve ever said.”
“I’m not concerned about starting a panic,” Dr.Tishone said. “I don’t even have to check the news. There are riots breaking out across the world now. The key isn’t to deny people information. That will only make things worse. What we need to do is show people that we can be what they expect us to be.”
“What’s that?” Hanna asked.
“Scientists,” Dr. Tishone said as though the word combined the best elements of a brilliant scholar, a fearless explorer and an unstoppable seeker of the truth.
Hanna wanted to be that kind of scientist, but it was a tall order. Self doubt was running a tag team with her basic fear for survival and they were doing a pretty solid job of wrecking every nerve in her body.
“Let me find Kimberly and the team we put together,” Hanna said. “I can think of a half dozen things we need to attend to that other people are probably too busy to handle.”
“Good,” Dr. Tishone said. “Go. And coordinate with me once you have your subteams in action. With the Effect Zone active again, we may need to pull out at a moment’s notice.”
“If we even have a moment,” Professor Ajayi said.
Hanna left them on that happy thought and tried to push the idea that she might be instantly flattened into dust out of her mind.
She found Kimberly, Kalia and a dozen other people from the subteam they had put together watching a news broadcast on an iPad.
“Reports are coming in that the massive quake, which as you can see has leveled the city of Buenos Aires, is again not being detected by scientists outside of Argentina,” a news reporter for the BBC explained. Behind him, video footage of a new day rising over a broken wasteland was playing.
“Did they have someone in Buenos Aires?” Hanna asked. “Where are they getting these pictures from?”
“They did, and they do,” Kimberly said. “There’s a local correspondent on the scene.”
“How did they get there this quick?” Hanna asked.
“They were there,” Kimberly said.
“Why aren’t they dead then?” Hanna asked.
“It looks like the radius of the Effect Zone was smaller this time.” Kimberly said.
“How much smaller?” Hanna asked.
“Less than half.”
“Maybe that’s why there are no crystals?” Hanna said. “Maybe this Phantom Quake wasn’t intense enough to produce them?”
“Or maybe the soil composition was different?” Kimberly said.
“Ok, that’s for the team that gets sent there to figure out. We need to work the problem here,” Hanna said.
“What can we do from here?” Kaila asked.
“A lot,” Hanna said. “I want two people with cameras taking pictures of the sky. Cover as much of it as you can and get shots that are unobstructed and ones where the crystals overlap some of the stars.”
“What are those for?” Kimberly asked.
“It’s not something other people here are going to check so I want to make sure we have it covered,” Hanna said. “I also want a team that can inspect the graves that are being unearthed now. Look for lines like the ones we saw on the concrete slabs that we put together.”
“You think human bodies left those lines?” Kimberly asked.
“I don’t know what left them, but I do know this would let us check one candidate off the this list,” Hanna said. “Or, at least move them down the list pretty far.”
“We should have someone check for striations in the crystals,” Kimberly said. “See if they match up with the ones we found too.”
“That’s a good idea,” Hanna said. “Meanwhile, you and I should reach out to every sky watcher that we can find. Maybe someone else has a blurry photo from the time of the event, like mine was. If we can compare multiple samples maybe we can catch a glimpse of the planet that just hit us.”
“Do crystals normally branch out like that?” Kalia asked, her attention focused upwards on the giant crystal spire that had begun to loom over them.
Hanna looked up to see that the top of the crystal was fragmenting out into much smaller, but more rapidly growing crystal branches.
“What’s going to happen when two of these crystal trees brush up against each other?” Kimberly asked.
“I don’t know, and I’m not certain that we want to find out,” Hanna said, feeling very small in the face of the vast and inexplicable structures growing before her.