TIME SPIKE – snippet 10:



Chapter 9



            It wasn’t until Wednesday that Richard and Margo were able to learn anything. Nicholas Brisebois, Richard’s friend at the air force base had been quite friendly and willing to co-operate without pressing for any serious explanations. The problem was simply that he didn’t know anything himself.

            Neither did anyone, it seemed.

            “It’s weird,” he told them over dinner that night. “Even my buddy in the state police is in the dark. All he knows is that the area surrounding the prison is crawling with people from a branch of FEMA he never heard of.”

            “Feema?” asked Morgan-Ash.

            “You have to make allowances, Nick,” Margo explained. “Richard didn’t move to the U.S. until six months after Katrina. So the acronym doesn’t come tripping off his tongue the way it does for most people.”

            “Ah. An acronym. God, you Yanks dote on the wretched things. And it stands for…?”

            “Federal Emergency Management Agency,” Brisebois supplied. “But according to my friend Tim, these aren’t regular FEMA types. They’re from something called the Special Investigations Bureau. Annoying bastards, from what he says. It didn’t take the E.M.T.’s on the scene more than an hour to start calling them the ‘siblings.’ They were annoyed because the siblings wouldn’t let them through to do their job. Said there were no injuries, as if anybody in their right mind is going to believe that.”

            Brisebois took another bit of his steak, chewed, swallowed, and then shrugged. “But the truth is that Tim just doesn’t know much. He got assigned to help co-ordinate the search for any missing inmates, and didn’t spend much time near the site itself. He says he never even got a glimpse of the prison, so he doesn’t know what sort of accident might have happened.”

            Margo had ordered the only fish course on the diner’s menu, for health reasons. Now, she was regretting the decision. Whatever it might do to your arteries, the air transport specialist’s steak looked good, damnation. Whereas her so-called perch looked as if it had been dredged from a canal somewhere. Tasted like it, too.

            She pushed what was left, which was most of it, off to the side with her fork. She wasn’t really that hungry anyway. “’Special Investigations Bureau’? I never heard of it, either. Of course, that’s hardly surprising. There must be eight thousand federal agencies I never heard of”—she gave Brisebois a smile—“including yours. When Richard told me you worked at the air force base, I assumed you were in the military.”

            Nick worked through another large bite of his steak. “Was,” he half-mumbled, before finishing his swallow. He wasn’t a sloppy eater, but he didn’t waste any time, either.

            He wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I was in the Air Force for over twenty years. Trash-hauler. Flew a C-141 cargo plane. Then I wound up in the Pentagon coordinating air transport for the first Gulf war. I guess that got me labeled as an expert, so I wound up finishing my career in the Air Force here at Scott. When I retired four years ago, I pretty much just swapped my uniform for a suit and started doing the same job for the Defense Department working in an office across the hall from the one I used to have.”

            He was a rather attractive man, she decided, in a stocky sort of way. Not all that much older than she was, either. But he was also quite obviously someone who came from a very different world than her own. Quite well-educated, but somehow very blue-collar. She wondered if that was a common combination among military officers. She’d ask Richard. He’d know, unless British customs were wildly different.

            She wasn’t sure if she found that attractive or repellent. Both, probably, although she had a dark suspicion the attraction was winning out. How else explain the fact that she’d had to suppress—twice, in fact—the completely inappropriate urge to mention that the “Lewis” part of her last name was of purely historical significance. The only reason she’d kept the name was because, by the time of her divorce, that was the name she was known by professionally.

            Not to mention that she’d had to suppress—twice, again—the urge to ask Richard if his friend was single or married. It was all a bit ridiculous, really. She was a scientist here on serious business, not a middle-aged woman on a singles’ cruise.

            She suddenly realized that Richard was looking a bit grim. “I have heard of the agency, as it happens,” he half-muttered. “They’re quite secretive, apparently.”

            Brisebois frowned. “Secretive? What the hell is there to be secretive about, if you’re with FEMA? It’s not as if natural disasters are exactly covert.” His easy grin came again, this time with a slightly sardonic twist. “I grant you, the current administration is obsessed with secrecy. Still, even for them, that seems over the top.”

            Richard seemed on the verge of saying something, but only shook his head. The gesture was so minimal that Margo barely spotted it at all. But she saw that Brisebois hadn’t missed it either.

            “What’s this all about, Richard?” he asked softly. He pushed aside his plate, having finished the steak and baked potato. “And please spare me the bullshit.”

            Margo wondered how Richard was going to finesse the question. Then, seeing the expression on his face, she realized he wasn’t going to finesse it.

            She started to place a restraining hand on his sleeve. Then, realizing how pointless that would be, almost snatched the hand back. Then, to her discomfort, saw that Nick Brisebois hadn’t missed that either.

            “Speaking of secretive,” he added.

            Morgan-Ash gave him a thin smile. “Would you settle for ‘need-to-know’?”

            “Not likely, buddy. Seeing as how I could just as easily turn the question around. Why are a mathematician and”—he poked a thumb in Margo’s direction—“a specialist in whichever arcane branch of physics she works in, the name of which I don’t remember and it didn’t mean squat to me anyway, rooting around in southern Illinois and expressing a burning interest in whatever happened to a state prison?”

            He leaned back in the booth seat, his hands planted firmly on the table. “No. Please. Don’t tell me you think this wasn’t a natural disaster and the authorities are actually covering up flying saucers.”

            Morgan-Ash’s smile widened. “You mean this isn’t Roswell? But I would have sworn the sign specified Route 51.”

            Brisebois chuckled. “It’s Area 51, dimwit. And don’t tell me a light infantry officer who could make his way through the Falklands doesn’t know the difference between Illinois and New Mexico. Area 51’s in Nevada, anyway.”

            Richard was the only one of the three still working at his meal. He ate the same way he did his professional work. Slowly and meticulously.

            “Well, no. In fact, both Margo and I are quite sure that a natural disaster is involved. Not a flying saucer anywhere in sight. What we also believe, however, is that the authorities are maintaining a veil over exactly what sort of natural disaster it is.”

            Brisebois stared at him for a moment. Then, shifted the stare to Margo for a longer moment, before bringing his eyes back to Richard. Then, suddenly, grinned from ear to ear.

            “My God. Richard Morgan-butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth-Ash. A genu-ine Grantville Freak. Who woulda thunk it?”

             He clapped his hands and started rubbing them together. “Join the club, you Johnnie-come-latelies. You should’ve told me right at the beginning, though. My buddy Tim in the state police is a charter member. That would have really gotten his interest sparked.”

            Richard was almost gaping at him. Margo suddenly realized she was gaping at him. Hastily she shut her mouth.

            Brisebois flashed her that same, slightly-sardonic grin. “What, Ms. Glenn-Lewis? Did you honestly think the two of you were the only skeptics in the country regarding the Of-fi-cial explanation of the Grantville Disaster? For Pete’s sake, my garbage collector thinks it’s garbage—and he knows garbage when he sees it.”

            Not knowing quite what to say, she slipped into being defensive. “Well, there are actually more than just the two of us. We… Well.” Now a little flustered, she asked the first question she could think of. “How did you get interested in the matter?”

            “My ex-wife. Laura got her Ph.D. in European history not long before we split up. The one more-or-less solid fact that slipped out from under the government’s quarantine was that the material transposed with Grantville was of German origin. Probably from the first half of the seventeenth century.”

            “Yes, that’s right.”

            “But they claim they found no remains, except those of a small number of people. No villages, towns, nothing. Just a few bodies, right?”

            Margo and Richard nodded together.

            Nick shrugged. “Well, Laura told me that had to be nonsense. Because, according to her, any time after the middle ages you couldn’t have found any part of Germany six miles in diameter that didn’t have at least one village in it. It wasn’t exactly the Wild West.”

            He looked through the window at the darkness outside. His expression seemed a little sad, although Margo wasn’t sure because of the dim lighting in that corner of the diner.

            “Laura’s got a more… Well, let’s just say that my view of the world is harsher than hers. She assumed that what was involved was simply error on the part of the investigators. Me, I figured we could just as easily be looking at a cover-up. Because—what if the information is true?”

            His eyes came back to them. “Huh? What then?” He jerked his head toward the window. “Who do they have, somewhere out there, in some sort of witness protection program? Or, more likely, locked up somewhere and they’re trying to figure out how to lose the key?”

            Margo had… never thought about it, she realized. So far as she knew, neither had any of the scientists in The Project. Their approach to the mystery of the Grantville Disaster had been entirely driven by interest in the physical phenomena involved, and what they implied about the universe. Their frustration with the authorities and their tendency to be secretive about their work was simply a matter of finagling the needed funds to do the research. It wasn’t as if they’d ever really thought there was a conspiracy involved on the highest levels. Not, at least, a conspiracy that went beyond the rather humdrum tendency of most establishments to keep a lid on truths simply because they might prove somehow awkward. More a matter of bureaucratic reflex than conscious thought. Much less…

            With some annoyance, she realized that a corner of her brain—obviously located somewhere in the primeval stem—was distracting her with its muted chortling.

            So. There’s one question answered. No, he is not married.

            Richard pulled out his Blackberry and punched in a number. After a pause, he spoke into the receiver.

            “Leo? Richard here. I think you’d best come down here yourself. Bring Malcolm also. And Karen, if she can get away. And call my wife and tell her I won’t be back for a bit.”

            There was another pause, as he listened. “No, that won’t be necessary. It’s not that urgent, and that’s an extra expense for no purpose. We have a rental vehicle already. We’ll pick you up at the St. Louis airport once you let us know your flight and estimated time of arrival.”

            He disconnected. “This will all prove quite interesting, I believe.”