(reading time: 58 minutes)
The reception area of the cloud cognition research facility was designed to evoke positive feelings much more than the rest of the building. The couches were burgundy, the front desk was paneled in light shining wood, and the receptionist wore a pale purple sweater.
She wore the smile she was hired for when an eleven year old girl came in through the automatic doors. She walked up to the desk and placed her elbows on it, but instead of asking any questions she merely looked around. The receptionist wondered what was going on in that little blond head, but didn’t care enough to actually guess.
“Can I help you dear?” she asked the girl. She noticed the child gripped something small tightly in her left hand.
“Yes please,” the girl said in a tone that she intended to sound mature but came off as exasperated. “I’m here to see my grandpa.”
“Does your grandpa work here?” the receptionist asked.
“No he lives here,” the girl replied.
“Your grandpa is…”
“And you want to…”
“Yes!” the girl nearly shouted, “I came to visit my dead grandpa. So does he have like a room or something? You can give me the number; I just need to give him something.”
“I’m sorry but we don’t really do visitation here. What’s your name?”
“And your parents had your grandpa brought here?” the receptionist asked as she picked up the antiquated phone, which like everything else around was chosen to put people at ease.
“Well they should be in our records here. I’ll just give them a call so they can come get you.”
The girl jumped up and grabbed at the phone’s coiled cord. She pulled the object out of the receptionist’s hand and held it hostage. Since the woman behind the desk did not care enough to grab for it, she merely looked around for an easier solution. Her eyes landed on one of the researchers who was returning from his car with a bagged lunch. He was in his mid-thirties with a hairline in its mid-fifties and wore bright blue sneakers that should’ve been on a teenager’s feet. He used his lab coat to hide the fact that his shirt wasn’t tucked in.
“Glenn, hang on a second,” the receptionist ordered.
“Not now Linda, I’m on lunch.”
“You’re in charge of intake right?”
“Well this young lady is here… to visit her departed grandfather.”
“Uhh, we don’t do visits,” Glenn mumbled. He took a deep breath and smelled the salami sandwich and the clementine he had in the lunch bag. His shoulders slumped as he got the feeling he’d extracted the bag from the cooler in his backseat a tad prematurely. It would be unpleasantly warm by the time he finally got to it.
“Well I’m pretty sure this falls to you,” Linda said with a smirk, “After all, you took her grandfather in. You should know where he is. So why don’t you take Holly here to him while I call her parents.”
“But what am I… you know,” Glenn looked at Holly who was still standing there with wild eyes choking the phone receiver. “What do I do?”
“Give her a tour and explain things to her,” Linda said. “When you’re done her parents will be here. Is that okay with you?” she asked Holly. The girl looked back and forth between the two adults suspiciously before eventually handing over the receiver. Glenn sighed and scratched his head before dropping his lunch bag on the reception desk and ushering Holly through a wooden door and into a white chamber with nozzles all along the wall. The door closed behind them and sealed with a soft hiss.
“This is a sterilization chamber,” Glenn told Holly. “It’s just going to clean us off before we go inside so no germs get in. Don’t be scared when you see the fog.”
“I’m not scared of fog,” the girl scoffed. Before she could close her mouth the nozzles came to life and doused them in streams of white vapor. She coughed. Glenn took a step away from her and sighed. What do I say? he thought. Sorry little girl, your grandpa can’t talk. He’s too busy being a puff of smoke. Oh but I’m sure if you call his name he’ll come flying over as if nothing has changed. Maybe he’ll have a toy store gift card for you.
When the smoke finished a new door opened and the two occupants stepped out into the main atrium of the facility. The space was brightly lit and ringed by a huge circular hallway that rose several stories up. Most of the closed doors led to different laboratories, but the middle space was for the ‘patients’ of the facility. A glass ceiling, tinted blue, let in plenty of light. A huge selection of fake plants ranging from trees and shrubs to flowers and mosses filled the central floor space and were firmly grounded in a bed of plastic wood chips. There were benches here and there that held employees busying themselves with their phones and ignoring the strange things that flew about their heads.
The air was full of small blue-white clouds that moved of their own accord. Holly could see tiny sparks of electricity hopping around in each one like lightning coiling up in a storm and preparing to strike. Some of them hung near the glass ceiling lazily while others slithered along the floor like the world’s fastest slime molds. Still more wheeled about in the air or rested in the shade of the ersatz foliage. One of them approached Holly. Rather than back up, she reached out her right hand. The cloud slid through her fingers. She felt tiny sparks, softer than the static from an old television screen. She giggled as the cloud ascended several feet and flew into a circular hole in the wall.
“Where is it going?” she asked.
“Probably back to the lab that’s working with it,” Glenn guessed. “We’re trying to train them to go where we want, so we set up a lot of those pipes throughout the building.”
“Train them?” she pondered aloud. “Why do they need training?”
“Is this the first time you’ve seen the ghosts?” Glenn asked. He leaned down so his face was even with hers. Parents can give their kids the birds and the bees, but I guess they don’t give this speech yet. It isn’t written anywhere. I guess I have to give her the… what should I call it? The after-the-dirt talk? After-the-worms?
“Yeah,” Holly answered. She opened her palm and looked at the object she’d brought with her. Suddenly she seemed sullen. The ghosts were interesting, but not what she’d hoped to see.
“Did you bring that for your grandfather?” Glenn asked, trying to be nice. The last thing he needed was a crying kid that didn’t belong to him disturbing all the research subjects.
“I thought he might want it. It’s a medal he won in the war. You know, the one out in the desert. I found it in a box of his old stuff.”
“He must’ve been a brave guy,” Glenn said, not bothering to tell her she’d have to be more specific about desert wars if she wanted anyone to know which conflict it was. He took a good look at the medal. It had faded and tarnished some, but he could still clearly see an eagle with its wings spread wide.
“He would always say how my Mom was stupid to marry my Dad, right in front of him,” Holly said.
“That seems brave,” Glenn said with a slight chuckle.
“So, where is he?”
“The thing about that…” Glenn started to explain. He took a few seconds after each phrase to check for tears in the girl’s eyes. “These ghosts are tricky. After we bring them here we don’t really know which one is which. They mostly seem the same to us.”
“Can’t they tell you who they are?”
“I’m afraid not. That’s something we are working on though. These ghosts aren’t like the ones in scary stories. They’re more like jellyfish. Do you know what a jellyfish is?”
“I’m not stupid,” Holly replied and crossed her arms. She glanced at the false forest.
“I’m not saying you’re… okay,” Glenn stammered. “When we invented the serum that creates the ghosts we based it on jellyfish. They don’t have a central brain, but they are a network of cells that work in concert and can survive in a wide range of conditions. Someone takes our serum if they want to live on as a ghost. When they die, the network created by the serum leaves the brain as a cloud of cooperating cells. While those cells are technically theirs, there isn’t a brain running things anymore. They’re a lot like animals and tend to do things on instinct. We’re not sure how much they retain their personality or their memories, but they change enough that we can’t communicate with them easily.”
“So you’re saying my grandpa is here but he’s about as smart as a bug? And you can’t show me which one he is?”
“I’m afraid so. There wouldn’t be much of a point to leaving the medal here. We’re pretty sure they don’t even ‘see’ things in any traditional sense of the word,” Glenn described. He spotted a coworker carrying a plastic container with pasta inside and figured she was headed to lunch. “Will you excuse me for just a second? Don’t go anywhere. Okay?” Holly nodded. Glenn shuffled over to the woman and stopped her. They chatted for a few moments. “So when you head past the desk, just check in my lunch bag and see if Linda took my clementine. You know she’s always doing that. Hell, it’s why I keep it in my car in the first place. If she did you can give her the third degree since you’re better at being angry.” His coworker smiled and punched him in the arm before walking away.
When Glenn got back he noticed Holly was gone. He held out his hands like a magician startled by the failure of one of his tricks. He screamed silently. He called out the girl’s name as calmly as he could. He dodged a few ghosts as he circled the plants in search of her.
“Did you call me?” she said from behind him. Glenn whirled around and sighed.
“Where did you go?”
“I didn’t go anywhere. I’m right here.”
“Alright, just stick closer. There’s a lot of fragile stuff around here. I’m the first guy that gets blamed when something breaks; I don’t really need your help.”
“It’s okay. What do you say I show you a few of the labs and then I’ll take you back out to reception?”
“Okay… good. Let me start by telling you about these cool things we call ‘ghost storms’.” The two left the atrium and continued the tour. Poor Glenn did not notice that Holly’s shoes trailed fake wood chips and she no longer had the medal with her. In her few moments alone she had slid to the heart of the fake forest, out of everyone’s sight, and placed the medal gently on the ground. He would find it.
Mitchell stepped outside his home and locked the door. The keychain had a tiny plastic bottle of wine on it as well as a bottle opener. Mitchell pocketed it, the sound of the keys clinking together making him feel very grown up. It was the first week his parents had ever left him alone and in charge of the house: seven glorious days where he could fend for himself in the wilds of the kitchen, the tundra of the chilly attic, and the dark swamps of the basement.
He was only thirteen, but he figured his qualifications added at least two years to his responsibility flow chart. Mitchell looked down at his uniform in pride: a gray shirt and shorts with a blue sash across his chest. The sash was nearly half full with pinned metal badges for various accomplishments. There was a salmon for angling, a red cross for first aid, a paddle for kayaking, a fire for camping, a yellow warning sign for safety training, a leaf for plant identification, and close to two dozen others. He lifted the sash and examined a paw print badge closely. I don’t even remember this one, he thought.
He descended the steps to the sidewalk and made sure to check both sides of the city street before crossing. There was nothing to the right. To the left… Mitchell’s eyes lingered. His family’s home was right next to the medical district, a fact that never failed to annoy when an ambulance went by at two in the morning. It wasn’t a hospital that held Mitchell’s gaze though; it was the cloud cognition research facility. He’d learned about the ghosts the past week in science class. When Mitchell had seen his teacher’s wavy blue line representations on the whiteboard he’d decided that he would never get the serum when he was older. You live your whole life to just become a cloud. Not me. I’m not afraid to be buried. I’m not scared of death. Mitchell searched his sash for his self-defense badge to demonstrate his own bravery, but couldn’t seem to find it. He let the cognition facility slip out of his mind as he walked the few blocks to the urban explorer headquarters.
The explorers was a community-oriented organization for young people who wished to become well-rounded. They’d given Mitchell more than a uniform; they’d given him direction and pride. Sometimes, late at night when there happened to be no sirens, he wondered if he cared about the explorers too much. He thought of them when people mentioned how well he was raised. He’d been one for six years and worked his way up from ‘egg’ rank all the way to ‘falcon’. It was just a few steps to the coveted ‘phoenix’. Wearing that orange and red wing badge was the ultimate achievement in his eyes. Politicians on television wore their orange badges as they blazed down the campaign trail. Generals wore it next to their medals. Any time there was a natural disaster and a group of survivors or volunteers showed up, it always seemed like they were led by a phoenix.
Mitchell entered the headquarters and took a deep breath. People of all ages buzzed about in the lobby, all in uniform. They had a large old-fashioned fireplace off to the side that crackled and popped noisily. It brought an extra bit of warmth to the October air that climate control just couldn’t. Mitchell stepped back as a troop of Explorers thirty strong marched by. He saluted them since they all seemed to be owls, a rank above him. When they passed he ran up a nearby flight of stairs to find his troop’s room.
He was a member of troop 91, nicknamed the wrens. Their meeting wasn’t scheduled to start for a few minutes, so he found his two best friends and sat on the floor between them.
To his left was Celia, a tall Italian girl whose parents left her alone way more often than Mitchell’s. Have I even met them? Mitchell wondered. He looked at Celia’s sash and saw the self-defense badge. When did she get one?
To his right was Lorne, a brown-haired boy with a memory like a steel trap and posture as stiff as an ironing board. Mitchell had been competing with both of them for two years now; for every badge they got he tried to get two more. Lorne had a tiny checkerboard badge for chess, a game Mitchell had never really picked up. Celia had one in the shape of France because she spoke French. Mitchell smiled at them both, but he secretly hoped today’s meeting would create an opportunity for him to pull ahead without having to learn a second language or play a hundred games with the bespectacled old guys that seemed rooted to the chess tables at the park.
“Did you guys notice anything weird last night?” Lorne whispered to the two of them. They shrugged in response. “Seriously? You didn’t feel the shaking?”
“What shaking?” Mitchell asked.
“I was standing in the kitchen last night, grabbing some ice cream, and my whole house shook. Nothing got knocked over but I dropped the rocky road. What’s weird is that my cat didn’t move. Like he didn’t notice,” Lorne explained.
“Cats never notice anything,” Celia joked.
“Did your parents notice?” Mitchell asked.
“They weren’t home,” Lorne said. He was about to continue, but he was interrupted by the arrival of their troop leader. All three straightened their backs and saluted the blonde woman.
Though he should have paid attention, Mitchell’s mind wandered. Had there been some shaking last night? A slight tremble as he fell into sleep? Or was that just a dream starting up with a few laborious tugs like an old chainsaw?
“Celia, Mitchell, and Lorne: since you three like to work together so much I’ve put you on crowd control,” their troop leader said. That brought Mitchell back to the room. He looked at his friends and saw they were not pleased either. Crowd control was, in their minds, the worst possible assignment. The Threaded Needle crafts fair only came to the city once a year, and now they would be stuck pointing milling crowds to the bathroom and handing out programs and maps. They could’ve been bandaging at the first-aid station. They could’ve been volunteers assisting the glass-blowers and wood carvers. Even manning the official urban explorers chocolate egg stand would be more exciting. At least then they could pop some peanut butter or mint-filled eggs in their mouths when nobody was watching.
Mitchell noticed Lorne seemed the angriest. His nostrils were flared and his jaw seemed tighter than the sailor’s knots he had a badge for. Mitchell guessed he was thinking something along the lines of ‘there’s no lousy badge for crowd control’.
After the meeting, the three of them left the center together and decided to walk to the arcade. Between them they had fourteen quarters which, if distributed evenly, allowed each of them to play two rounds of Dragon Wrangler and one round of Deep Sea Diamonds. That was assuming Mitchell could avoid dying on the first level’s fat dragon like he always did.
“So when did you get your self-defense badge?” Mitchell asked Celia as they walked down the sidewalk. They started to pass by a chain link fence, behind which was a massive mud-filled pit. A peeling sign, the presence of construction machines, and a huge stack of concrete pipes informed them that the mud pit would eventually become a new organic grocery store.
“It’s a funny story actually,” she started, “I don’t know if I deserve it. The instructor was testing me and I went for a palm thrust like this,” she shot her hand out in front of her and rooted her feet in place. “I guess my reach was longer than he thought, because I hit him in the stomach and he coughed. I think he was embarrassed that a girl knocked the air out of him and he just gave me a pass. I didn’t even have to finish the test.”
“Liar!” Lorne shouted. The others looked at him quizzically. Lorne’s fuse had always been short, but it was rarely actually attached to an explosive. Mitchell suspected that if he kept a secret diary, it probably had a few pages devoted to bullet point grievances. Maybe even a hit list, he thought.
“Why are you calling me a liar?” Celia asked. Her deadly palms of self-defense now rested on her hips.
“That’s how I got my self-defense badge,” Lorne huffed. “I hit Mr. Raideen in the stomach. I made him cough. Why are you stealing my story?” Lorne seemed to have quickly run out of breath. He stood before them bent over, having lost his normally perfect posture in favor of looking like a hyena perched over a bloody carcass.
“What is going on with you?” Mitchell asked.
“Nothing! People just need to stop stealing from me! First my insect identification badge goes missing, and now Celia’s wearing my story like a bracelet and shoving it in my face with a palm thrust!”
“Someone’s taking your badges?” the other two asked.
“I don’t know… Someone’s taking something. Things keep moving!” Lorne looked like he might break down in tears. He said he had an instinct that something was very wrong, but he couldn’t explain it. It was like invisible crowds had been passing through him and his home for days. That was the real problem, not the few members of that crowd that plucked a badge or a story off him when he wasn’t looking.
Lorne dropped his aggressive stance, crossed his arms, and leaned up against the fence. It rattled and bent a little to accommodate him. He was about to recover his dignity by simply mentioning how it wasn’t fair for Celia to talk about something she didn’t do, when the shaking came.
The whole world rocked. The fence rattled like a giant snake. The mud holding it in place gave way, and the whole thing folded back and slid into the muddy pit, taking Lorne with it. He cried out and held on tightly, wrapping his fingers around the links, sliding them through the mud. Thick wet Earth peppered with cigarette butts slid down the back of his uniform.
Part of the sidewalk cracked under Mitchell and Celia. They tried to lean out of the way, but were similarly thrown into the pit with Lorne. Mitchell looked to the bottom of the pit and saw a depression filled with grimy water. For a moment the water shook so much that it appeared to be full of tiny fish jumping to escape. Then it rapidly drained away into nothing and he could see a huge crack in the wet Earth. He heard Celia and Lorne screaming. Shocked, he dumbly wondered what good his earthquake preparedness badge was if it couldn’t get him out of this.
The fence slid over the crack and a deluge of mud poured through the holes. Celia and Mitchell caught up with the fence and slid onto it. Now all three of them were sprawled out across the metal like fish in a net. It bent under their weight and threatened to drop them into the crack. Mitchell could practically hear the blackness yawning beneath him; the Earth opened its mouth wide to accept the child sacrifices.
The shaking subsided to the point where their screaming was the loudest sound. For a few moments no one dared move. Lorne slowly rolled himself to the side until he was off the fence. He stood up, his sneakers sinking completely into the muck, and reached to pull Celia out. She reached out, but recoiled when a new sound emerged from the crack beneath them. A million tiny thwips, like the turning of pages, grew louder and louder. A cloud of insects exploded out of the hole, breaking up into streams as they passed through the holes in the fence. They were the color of old newspapers and some were several inches long. They all screamed again in response, expecting the insects to descend back on them and devour their flesh. Instead they rose up into the sky and flew out of sight.
Lorne pulled his friends away from the fence and they began the slog back up the hill. Mitchell fell face first into the mud and scrambled to collect the three badges that were knocked off his sash. He pocketed the muddy objects and wiped his nose, which left a large streak of mud across his upper lip.
“Was that an earthquake?” he asked.
“What else would it be? The bugs are what freaks me out!” Celia said. “They were under the ground!”
“There’s one!” Lorne cried out and pointed to a stray insect floundering in the mud. It flapped its thick wings uselessly. Lorne took a few squishy steps over to it and grabbed it. “Ack!” he cried and repositioned it in his hands. “It bit me!” He gripped it now by the base of the wings and held it out for the other two to see. The creature was four inches long, it had three straight tails coming out of its abdomen, and its legs wriggled frantically.
“What is it?” Mitchell asked.
“Well, it looks like a mayfly,” Lorne said, regaining his composure. “But it can’t be… they don’t get this big. Plus, they can’t bite. The adults only live a few hours and they can’t even eat anything. They’re just supposed to mate and die.”
“I guess nobody told that one,” Celia quipped.
“Should we go back to the explorer center?” Mitchell asked. “They might have some missions for us because of the quake.”
“You guys go ahead, I’m going to head home,” Lorne said. “I want to get this thing in a jar and show some people. I want to know what it is.” The other two nodded.
“Do you think the craft show will be cancelled tomorrow?” Celia asked.
“I don’t think so,” Lorne said, looking at the tops of the buildings surrounding them. “I think that was pretty small. None of the streetlights fell over. The buildings look fine.”
They took a few moments back on the sidewalk to wipe most of the mud from each other. Celia smiled as she used her relatively clean forearm to clear Mitchell’s cheeks. He laughed a little and blushed. After that they went their separate ways. When Celia and Mitchell got to the center they were sent out by their troop leader to knock on the doors of various shut-ins around the block to make sure they were alright. The quake’s damage appeared to be very minimal, and everyone at the center was pleased to hear the bulletins on the radio declaring that the craft show would go on as planned.
When Mitchell got home that night he was a little saddened to remember his parents were out of town. Sure, there was soup in the fridge for him to microwave, but that was nothing compared to soup warm from the stove. Soup with crackers lovingly crushed and sprinkled over the top.
He took off his uniform, removed all the badges from his sash, and threw the pile into the laundry basket. Luckily he had a few spare clean ones in his closet. The next few hours went by quickly as he went through his list of chores: feed the fish, vacuum the living room carpet, clean his room, and check the mail. After that he threw a plastic container full of minestrone into the microwave. He took it to the couch in the living room and let it sit in his lap, warming his legs through the empty oven mitts underneath it. He turned on the television and found an educational program. His parents had been very thorough with the blocked channels, so he rarely searched for something more exciting.
The show was talking about the ghost serum. There were two doctors discussing it with each other, offering their opinions on when the appropriate time for a person to take it was. Was it on their deathbed, when their fear was strongest? Or was it before, with their hand pressed against some medical forms? When should someone decide if they’re going to live forever?
Mitchell knew it wasn’t living though. Even if it was, it probably still wouldn’t be forever. Those little clouds were just as vulnerable as anything else. He’d heard that a strong wind was enough to break them up permanently. He thought about the pit he’d nearly fallen into earlier. Would it have been better if, after his body had fallen screaming into the darkness, a small piece of him floated back out? I don’t think they’d let a cloud be a phoenix, he thought.
His ponderings on the badge-less-ness of the afterlife were interrupted by the doorbell. He put his soup on the table and went to see who it was. Lorne declared himself excitedly and told him to hurry up and open the door.
The boy entered, still filthy from their misadventure earlier. He brought a loaded backpack in with him and the two sat down on the floor of the living room. Great, now I have to vacuum again, Mitchell thought as he saw Lorne grind tiny flakes of dried mud into the carpet with his knees.
Lorne pulled his backpack out in front of him and removed a glass jar. Inside, Mitchell saw the insect he had captured earlier. It was perfectly still and all its limbs were curled inward.
“Is it dead?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Lorne replied. “I thought it might be by the time I got here. It was moving really slowly before. That’s not the weird thing though. I took this thing to the natural history museum, to three different troop leaders, and to my neighbors.”
“And all of them thought I was playing some dumb game. They can’t see it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean adults can’t see this bug. They all told me the jar was empty. They got mad at me when I kept saying there was something inside.”
“But it’s right there.”
“Of course I know it’s there,” Lorne said and rolled his eyes. “But they don’t. You know what that means? None of them saw all the other ones that came out of the ground either.”
“Well… what do we do about it?”
“I don’t know. I brought my microscope. I thought we could try and dissect it.”
“Well, I was in the middle of some soup,” Mitchell stammered, appetite already half-spoiled.
“Come on Mitch, this could be a new species. If we name it, they’d have to give us some kind of new badge or something. We could be phoenixes by next week!”
“Well when you put it that way,” Mitchell relented.
Lorne pulled the microscope from his bag, but they both quickly realized the bug was too big to fit on a slide. Lorne used a pair of tweezers to separate one of its legs and place it on a slide. He pressed his eye against the scope and twisted the dial back and forth a few times.
“That’s so weird,” he commented. “Here, look at this.” Mitchell took Lorne’s place and lowered his head. At first he just saw the leg, but when he adjusted it slightly he noticed the very odd texture of it; the thing didn’t seem entirely solid. Bits of it swirled and whipped away like the tops of storm clouds.
“That is weird… do you think the head is the same way?” he asked Lorne. Lorne shrugged and reach over to pick up the rest of the insect. He did not use the tweezers this time, and they were both surprised to see the entire thing turn black as soon as Lorne lifted it. A second later it was translucent. After that its shape dissolved into formless shadow and conformed to Lorne’s hand. He cried out and tried to shake it off to no avail. The shadow sank into his hand and vanished from existence. Their new species had disappeared. Lorne scratched at the back of his hand frantically, but stopped after a few seconds.
“Are you okay?” Mitchell asked, afraid he might hear the buzz of a wasp when Lorne opened his mouth.
“I think so,” he stammered. “It doesn’t feel like anything. It doesn’t hurt. You saw that right?”
“I kind of wish I hadn’t,” Mitchell said. “It looked like it turned into a shadow and… disappeared in your hand.”
“That’s what I saw too. Is… is the leg still under the microscope?”
“Yeah,” Mitchell said after he checked. “I don’t think that helps us though.”
“Do you… do you mind if I sleep over tonight?” Lorne asked. Mitchell could hear the fear in his voice. “I brought my sleeping bag. My house is being weird and I’d rather not be alone.”
“Yeah okay. What do you mean weird?”
“I don’t know. Like the stuff that happened earlier… things just seem to move when I’m not looking. Not just things either… like my cat. Do you remember what color his fur is?”
“Yeah, it’s brown,” Mitchell said confidently.
“No, it’s gray,” Lorne contradicted.
“Oh… oh yeah, I remember now. He’s gray with yellow eyes.”
“If you had asked me yesterday I would have said he was brown too,” Lorne said, eyes staring into the crack between the couch cushions. “I think it changed.”
“You think somebody dyed your cat while you were out?” Mitchell asked skeptically.
“No. Forget about it. Let’s do something else, okay?”
Mitchell relented and the two busied themselves with a video game console. After that they quizzed each other on various subjects for upcoming badge exams and prepared for bed. They had an early start tomorrow to prepare for the craft show.
Once he was sure Lorne was asleep, Mitchell sat up in his bed and looked around the room, trying to pick up on the things that were disturbing his friend so much. He thought about the wispy texture of that strange bug’s leg and how the rest of it had dissolved. He looked out his window and spied the ghost research facility. Is it because we live so close to that? he wondered. Maybe they escape at night and haunt people. Maybe they fly into your ears and drive you mad trying to take over your brain. What would happen if there was another earthquake and that building cracked down the middle… If all those ghosts flew up into the sky as a big tornado?
A plastic divider, split into ten even squares, was lowered directly into the ghost storm. The spinning ring, originally about four feet wide, was separated into ten small clouds encased in plastic cubes. Two scientists busied themselves lowering sensors into each cube and watching the results scroll across their computer screens. Glenn walked in, once again clutching his lunch bag as if it was his spouse’s hand.
“Sorry to interrupt, but do any of you guys have change for a dollar? The vending machine won’t take my only single and I forgot to bring a drink…”
“Glenn come look at this,” one of his coworkers urged. He hadn’t lifted his eyes from the computer screen for thirty seconds. Glenn held his lunch behind his back and leaned over to examine the data.
“How many did you start with?” he asked.
“Ten,” his coworker answered. “Look at these electrical signatures though. They’re all different.”
“You don’t mean…”
“I do. The storms are changing them.”
“Rearranging is the more appropriate term,” the second scientist said as she removed the sensors from the plastic cubes. “We’re seeing qualities hop between ghosts.”
“The storms are causing this?” Glenn asked. The others nodded. “Why are they doing it then? Any sense of individuality must get destroyed. It’s like… what? Partial suicide?”
“We really need to stop thinking of them as people,” his female coworker said. “They’re alive but they’re not showing much drive for self-preservation. We’ve lost thirty this month.”
“Thirty?” Glenn asked, shocked. “You’re telling me I spend all day taking them in and assuring their families they’re treated well and then they just willingly dissipate?” His fingers got so tight that he ripped his paper lunch bag. He carefully placed it on the counter away from the experiments so as not to damage it further.
“Not exactly,” she explained. “Some of them seem to dissolve of their own accord, but we lose most of them from these storms that they form. They group together like this and spin to enhance neural activity. While each individual is a mind weaker than a goldfish’s, proximity and motion allow electrical signals to jump between them. It makes their network larger.”
“So the storms are smarter?” Glenn asked.
“That’s where we’re not sure. We know there’s more activity in general. At the moment we can’t even guess as to the nature of that activity. The ones closest to the eye of the storm though… they seem to suffer the worst fragmenting. Most of the electrical activity occurs there.”
“So… do we need to isolate them all? Keep them from forming storms? Do you guys remember the girl I told you about? Holly? I don’t know what I’d say to her if all these things kill themselves by making bad weather and she asks if her grandpa, her war veteran grandpa she brought a freakin’ medal for, is still around.”
“There’s a reason they don’t put any guarantees on those serum bottles,” his coworker noted. Glenn sighed and took his lunch out of the room. He walked by a large wall fixture that looked like a frosted glass window with green dew all over it. He stared for a moment and watched a few ghosts settle over it and absorb the nutrients from it. Their food was a concentrated mix of vitamins and sugars in liquid form and the facility had more than a hundred devices like this to keep the undead masses of gases well fed. Glenn wondered if they enjoyed their wall slime as much as he enjoyed his clementine.
Despite the strange events of the day before, Mitchell and Lorne woke refreshed and eager in the morning. They donned clean uniforms and even took turns with a lint roller. They shined each and every badge with a few drops of oil from a miniscule bottle. They combed their hair. Lorne tried a few friendly smiles in the mirror until he found the right one. It was just crowd control, but everything you did for the explorers was worth doing well.
Celia met them at the bus stop and they took the five minute ride to the city stadium. They met up with their troop leader where they received stacks of programs to hand out and an assigned position. They were disheartened to learn they’d been split up. Mitchell and Celia were to stand at the stadium entrance while Lorne and a slightly younger Wren were to be on the stadium floor, where dozens of hanging colorful curtains separated the various booths. The two groups said their goodbyes and went to take up their posts.
At the stadium entrance, Celia and Mitchell quickly grew bored. The programs hung limply in their hands as they held the stack out to everyone that walked by. They perked up a bit when Celia noticed a reporter from the local news was standing just thirty feet away, taping an introduction for a segment with her cameraman. The two explorers inched their way towards her step by step, hoping to get caught in the background of the footage. An elderly woman shuffled after them, trying to snag a program. Mitchell leaned forward and handed her one, then resumed sliding into frame. Celia brushed back her hair. Mitchell ran a fingernail between his teeth to make sure there wasn’t anything between them. In just a few feet they would be celebrities, immortalized on channel six’s nightly community programming. Six inches… two…
The stadium rocked. Mitchell and Celia were thrown from their feet, in the direction they’d been shuffling. They fell into frame just before the cameraman angled his device to the ceiling. Huge chunks of it cracked and fell. People scattered and screamed. A second earthquake had come, twenty times stronger than the last. Mitchell tried to grab the fibers of the short carpet. He felt like he was sliding down a wall. The rumbling and noise not only continued, but grew louder. Celia reached out and they locked hands. The two explorers silently decided they wouldn’t look at anything but each other until the planet stopped its seizure.
The glass separating the ticketing area from the outside world shattered and fell. A strange wind roared in and brought bits of the glass with it. Mitchell saw nothing but the hazel of Celia’s eyes and the tiny droplet of water shaken from one of her eyelashes, but he heard it all. He heard the ground outside split. That sound of rocks cracking made him picture the whole planet splitting down the middle and revealing its layers like a jawbreaker. A pipe burst overhead and they were doused in cold water.
As if their being assigned to stand at the epicenter of an earthquake weren’t bad enough, the second part of the disaster arrived. Colossal swarms of those strange insects, like ocean waves, emerged from the cracks in the ground and washed over them. A few of them bit at Mitchell’s exposed arms, but he somehow knew that moving would just draw more attention from them. The bugs flapped and buzzed in the chaos, running into walls, streaming down corridors, and splattering themselves against the few windows that were intact. Mitchell’s gaze strayed from Celia’s for just a moment; he saw a pair of them collide in midair. They fell to the ground and seemed to fight each other, tangling their legs together and biting at each other’s eyes. Stranger yet, the two tangled bugs turned a dark color and lost much of their shape. That’s what the other one did, Mitchell remembered. The two shapes became one, solidified, and lightened. They were now one creature, twice as large as before. The newly born giant took off and rejoined the swarm. They combined! Did that happen to Lorne? Is he part bug now?
Mitchell could only clearly think these questions because the sounds of the quake were dying away. Though the shaking was done, pieces of the roof still fell here and there like melting icicles. They could hear a giant metal beam slowly bending somewhere deep inside the ruined stadium.
The swarms mostly moved on, though there were nearly a hundred bugs perched on various walls and pieces of rubble. Some of them congregated, fused, and flew away as giants more than a foot long.
Mitchell and Celia rose to their feet, though they didn’t let go of each other, and broke eye contact. At first all they saw was the destruction. Water, stone, glass, and torn stretches of carpet were everywhere. The ground was extremely uneven. Celia was the first to notice yet another bit of strangeness.
“Where is everyone?” she asked. Mitchell looked around. They couldn’t see any other people. The rubble couldn’t have possibly buried everyone, yet they were alone. The cameraman’s camera sat nearby, with no sign of its owner. Here and there they saw purses, jackets, a walking stick… but no people. They heard sirens in the distance.
“Mitch… we need to find Lorne… and the other wrens. We’re explorers; we have to be brave,” she sniffled. Mitchell nodded his head. He looked down at his hand; in it he still held a bundle of crushed programs. He loosened his grip and watched the tight ball of paper hit the floor. The two of them found an entrance to the main stadium that was more or less intact and cautiously walked inside. They did their best to avoid the ominous bugs that seemed to stare at them angrily.
Lorne rose suddenly out of unconsciousness. He hit his head on the corner of a slab of concrete and it started to bleed. It was dark, with only a few tiny pins of light coming through the rubble he was trapped under. A cloud of dust hung around him, choking him. He held his hand over his mouth and took a few slow deep breaths. Remembering his disaster training, he pulled his shirt up over the bottom half of his face to filter out some of the dust.
First, he tried to lift the slab of stone that had him pinned up against the wall. He pushed and pushed. He tore some skin off his palm when his hand slipped. He let loose a string of mature profanities so sincere that he deserved a badge for it. Then he cried.
He swept the floor slowly, looking for any tool to help him. His tears marked his trail from one end of the rubble pocket to the other. His hand hit something floppy and soft. A shoe. A shoe with a foot still inside. With a leg still attached. It was the body of the young wren he’d been partnered with. He still held the programs crumpled in his hand. Lorne recoiled and cried loudly. He’d never seen a dead person before.
When the initial shock wore off he caught his breath and leaned over the body. He stared at it, squinting through the darkness, for more than a minute. He wasn’t quite sure, but something seemed off. He reached out and poked the shoe. It moved slightly. Lorne shimmied closer and stared at the dead explorer.
Only… Lorne did not think he was dead. Not entirely anyway. He had not told anyone yet, but Lorne was deeply suspicious of the world around him. The fact that the adults hadn’t acknowledged his insect specimen brought him close to the edge, and the specimen dissolving into his hand pushed him over it. Everything seemed to just be a small part of what it was supposed to be. Everyone had these shifting blind spots. Memories came and went. Oddest of all, no matter how he tried, Lorne could not remember his parents. He could not remember ever meeting Mitchell or Celia’s parents. Every explorer’s parents seemed to be perpetually at work or out of town. Lorne knew he was a capable young man, but he doubted his ability to raise himself from an infant.
With these suspicions burning in his mind, Lorne pressed both his hands against his still partner’s bared stomach. The body exploded outward as a cloud of shadows. As quick as they’d emerged the shadows were sucked into Lorne through every exposed inch of his flesh. He watched strips of blackness fly into his own eyes. He gripped his head in his hands, cried out, and tried to stand. His body broke straight through the previously impenetrable rubble and sent pieces of it flying. He wasn’t just standing; he was standing higher than ever before.
He looked at his hands. His fingers were rougher. The hair on his arms was much thicker and darker. He felt like his spine had been pounded flat like dough and he wobbled on his feet some. He moaned and noticed the depth of his own voice. He looked at the floor, but couldn’t find any trace of the dead explorer or his clothes. Only the crumpled programs remained.
Lorne staggered through the rubble and rubbed the cut on his forehead. His sudden growth seemed to have stretched the injury wider, though his clothes had changed to fit his new stature. He noticed only a few bodies strewn about. They were all explorers. He made his way to one of the restrooms. Though its lights flickered and all the stall doors had been shaken off their hinges, one of the mirrors had survived. Lorne stared into his reflection. His future.
The shadows he’d absorbed had aged him to about twenty years, complete with five o’ clock shadow. A normal person might become gripped by a sense of loss, but Lorne’s suspicions about the world remained. He didn’t think his adolescence had been stolen from him because he didn’t remember having much of a childhood either.
He felt smarter. Things fell into place. He could feel knowledge growing in his mind like mushrooms, things he’d never even had the opportunity to learn. The real reason for the earthquake dawned on him. He was still missing some of the pieces, but he knew how to get them.
Lorne spotted one of the insects crawling across the wall. He ran over to it and smashed it with his fist. He ground its pulp into the space between the wall tiles. Then the pulp became the shadows he was growing accustomed to and sank into his hand. He hadn’t really felt it with the first one back at Mitchell’s, but now he knew there was definitely something. The bug had a piece of the puzzle. The bugs had power. The shadows made him bigger, stronger, smarter… how many until the whole world flaked away like eggshell and he saw the truth?
He flew into a rage, crushing every insect he could find. He ran through section after section of upturned stadium seating, rooting out insects to devour. Eventually he came across one more than six feet long. The beast hissed and clicked at him, but he refused to back down. Somehow he knew that death wouldn’t happen, at least not completely. He collided with the creature and they both fought viciously. For every limb Lorne tore from its body, the insect stabbed his torso with its mouthparts until his uniform was soaked through with blood. In a last ditch effort to survive, the bug took flight, carrying Lorne with it. The insect carried him to the roof of the stadium, through a massive crack, and out into the city sky.
Try as they did, Mitchell and Celia could not find Lorne. They overturned nearly fifty large rocks, and were rewarded only by the occasional strange mayfly skittering away. Though they both knew that hundreds of people had been in the fair, the only bodies to be found were those of volunteering explorers. There were smashed baskets, but no smashed basket weavers. Broken wooden statues of beavers and elk, but no broken whittlers. They had the displeasure of knowing every corpse was a friend.
Eventually, the city’s various emergency services flooded in. Firefighters searched the rubble for survivors. A pair of police officers corralled the two explorers outside despite their protests. A large group of paramedics stood around, as they lacked a significant number of injured victims.
“You’re not listening,” Mitchell tried to explain to the officer. “There were tons of people in there! They just disappeared! They’re just gone.”
“Relax kid,” the officer said. “You’re in shock. It looks like it was just the explorers in there. The fair must not have started yet.”
“Of course it did,” Celia shouted at him. “We didn’t hand out a hundred programs to people who weren’t there. The earthquake. It took them somehow.”
“Okay,” the officer said skeptically. “Let’s get you two over to the paramedics. They’ll give you some… fluids or something.” The frustrated officer put a flat hand on each of their backs and pushed them gently towards one of the waiting ambulances. Before they could get there, the wren troop leader showed up, battered and bloody.
“It’s okay, I can take them,” she told the officer, who shrugged and returned to his vehicle. Celia ran over to their leader and hugged her the way she would hug her mother.
“What’s going on?” she asked the mother wren, choking back tears. Mitchell just stood nearby, his arms feeling like lead pipes. His ankles felt eaten through with rust, as if he might collapse and leak his insides out at any moment like a century old fire hydrant.
“It was an earthquake sweetie,” their leader said as she brushed Celia’s hair to comfort her.
“What about the bugs?” Mitchell called out.
“What bugs?” she asked.
“You were here! You had to see them! A million bugs flew out of the ground! They’re mixing up into bigger bugs and they bite! There… There’s one on your shoulder!” Celia pulled away from the mother wren and noticed the eight inch insect crawling across her shoulder. She pointed at it in horror. Their troop leader looked at both her shoulders, clearly startled by their assertion, but relaxed when she saw nothing.
“What are you talking about? Did you hit your head Mitchell? Come here, we need to get you checked for a concussion.” While she spoke, one of the mayfly’s legs hooked on her lower lip and it crawled across her face.
“It’s on your face!” the young explorers each shouted. The bug hissed at them and positioned itself comfortably on top of their leader’s head.
“That’s enough of this!” their leader yelled, upsetting the bug slightly and forcing it to adjust itself in its nest of blonde hair. “Now is not the time for this. We just had an earthquake and I need all my explorers to keep a level head. That means no lying about bugs that bite and…”
Before she could finish a colossal mayfly limb knocked her twenty feet in the air. Her body fell limply on top of a police car. The officers and paramedics looked around in confusion, but they did not see what the two young explorers saw. They did not see the sixty foot long mayfly crawling through the street. They ran about, as good as blind, as the bug smashed their vehicles and broke nearby windows with the vibration of its wings.
Mitchell and Celia took cover underneath an ambulance. The bug’s legs swept about haphazardly, alternatively toppling and crushing emergency personnel. The bug’s massive head lowered and it made a horrific sound like meatloaf being tossed into an industrial fan. The explorers held their ears. Eventually the beast moved down to another street, destroying the city as it went, and the kids had a new scene of destruction to observe.
Anyone left alive had fled. Celia rushed to the body of their leader, with Mitchell not far behind. She grabbed the mother wren’s outstretched hand and searched for a pulse. She was horrified to see the body turn into a black cloud at her touch. She recoiled and shrieked, but the cloud paid no attention. It spread over her and sank into her body, leaving nothing of their leader behind.
Mitchell was afraid to touch her, but he could see something happening. Her screams turned into soft sobs as her body and hair seemed to stretch out. After a minute her sadness was gone, replaced by confusion. She examined her hands and her own waist. Mitchell’s jaw dropped open. Celia now appeared to be seventeen years old. In the span of a few moments she’d grown out of the next few valentines he’d planned to give her.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly. Suddenly he felt like the only child left in the world.
“I think so,” Celia said. “My voice sounds weird… but… oh that doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter?” Mitchell asked.
“I can’t really describe it, but I’m pretty sure she’s not dead. She couldn’t see the bug because she wasn’t close enough.”
“What do you mean!? It ran into her!”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t know what… Look, I think the same thing might have kind of happened to Lorne. With the shadows. He absorbed one of those bugs last night,” Mitchell explained.
“Lorne’s not dead,” Celia sighed with relief. She ignored Mitchell for few moments and wandered about the street, holding her hands up to the buildings and framing them. Mitchell wondered if a concussion would actually be preferable to all this.
“We have to stop that bug,” she said out of the blue. “It could destroy everything.”
“We can’t stop that thing!” Mitchell cried out. Maybe the adults could. Maybe the new and improved Celia and Lorne could. Mitchell could not. He was not yet a phoenix.
“I can’t really explain it to you Mitch,” she said delicately, “but we have to stop that thing. I haven’t got it all worked out myself, but I know if nobody stops that bug we’ll all die.” She started walking away and urged Mitchell to keep up. He asked where they were going. “The news station. They have a helicopter. I’m going to take it, fly it into that thing’s head, and chop it to bits.”
“You can’t fly a helicopter!” Mitchell protested.
“She could,” Celia said and looked at her own hands. Then she pointed at a winged badge on her sash that hadn’t been there before. “She had her pilot’s badge.”
When they reached the local news station they found that the earthquake had damaged it enough to make any locked doors pointless. Celia, using knowledge that didn’t belong to her, found her way to the helipad on the roof. The helicopter was intact, but it was surrounded by police officers and staff from the station. There was some kind of argument going on. The reporters and pilot wanted to go up to get footage of the destruction, but the police were not allowing it because of the continued inexplicable damage occurring around the city.
Celia kept her distance, trying to figure out a way to get the keys to the vehicle and get inside without anyone seeing her. Mitchell hid behind her. While he would normally rest his hands on her shoulders when they were scrunched so close in stealth positions, he found she was too tall for that now. He wondered if the entire world would grow up without him.
Before they could make any sort of move, a strange figure burst through the rooftop door. It was a man whose clothes were soaked through with blood. He looked about fifty years old and had wild eyes. The crowd around the helicopter turned to look at him and one of the officers asked if the man was alright. The bloody man staggered over to the officer, threw off the charade of injury, and grabbed the officer’s gun from its holster. Celia and Mitchell took a few steps back and watched, aghast, as the crazed man emptied the clip into the crowd. All but one fell dead before anything could be done. The last officer tried to pull his gun in response, but the bloody man rushed over to him with inhuman speed and beat the man into unconsciousness with the pistol grip. He stood tall and looked around.
“Mitchell?” the bloody man called out when he spied the two explorers. They approached him cautiously. At first, Mitchell hadn’t the slightest idea who the man was. Celia figured it out almost immediately.
“Lorne? What did you just do?” she asked.
“You’ve got some of the shadows Celia. That’s good. You don’t have enough of them though. If you did, you’d know I didn’t do anything. They weren’t people. They were filler. Styrofoam packing nuts meant to keep us from jostling too much.”
“How did you get so old Lorne?” Mitchell asked numbly.
“I told you Mitch. It’s the shadows. You take them from dead things and you get smarter and older. And stronger.” Lorne leaned over, grabbed one of the helicopter’s rails, and lifted it slightly off the ground. He dropped it and laughed.
“You killed them Lorne,” Celia said, but it was clear she wasn’t sure what happened.
“Killed who?” Lorne said with a smile and chuckled again. Celia and Mitchell looked around and noticed that all of the bodies Lorne had created were gone. All that was left was the officer’s guns and a shoe or two.
“Where did they go?” Mitchell asked.
“They didn’t go anywhere,” Lorne explained. “They weren’t even alive. Only the explorers are alive. We’re the ones who made this city.”
“Lorne why couldn’t the other adults see the bugs? I can still see them,” Celia asked.
“Because they weren’t close enough to the center. The closer you are to the center the younger you are. The younger you are the more aware you are. We’re not old Celia. We’re just one, or two, or three young people all stuck together. And we’re trapped.”
“What do you mean we’re trapped?”
“I’ll show you,” Lorne said quietly. He raised his pistol and pointed it at Mitchell.
“What… what are you doing?” Mitchell whimpered.
“Don’t worry Mitch, you won’t die. You’ll be shadows. Then you’ll realize. You’ll remember that you’ve held a gun before the way I am now. You’ll remember your children. Your children’s children,” Lorne said coolly. His eyes glazed over a little, suggesting he didn’t want to watch the carnage he was about to inflict.
“Lorne I don’t want to die,” Mitchell said and held up his hands.
Lorne was about to pull the trigger when another gun fired. He dropped to his knee as a red blotch spread across it. Celia had grabbed the other officer’s gun. She dropped it, shocked at what she had done.
“You can’t kill him,” she said pathetically.
“You two won’t listen!” Lorne shouted. They were interrupted by the sound of a nearby building collapsing. They spotted the giant mayfly a few blocks away, trudging its way through every structure in its path. Billowing clouds of gray and black smoke followed in its wake. “It doesn’t matter,” Lorne said through his clenched jaw. “It’ll all be over when I kill that bug. I won’t be stuck in the center. I’ll be the center. Then the lies will stop.” Lorne dropped the gun and rose to his feet. He shrugged off the pain of the gunshot thanks to his newfound strength and started running towards the distant bug. When he came to the edge of the roof he simply leapt the more than thirty feet to the next rooftop. He was so close.
“We have to get in the chopper,” Celia said. She looked over and saw Mitchell crying. He ran over and hugged her waist, not sure at which moment his childhood had snapped in half. Celia patted his hair. She seemed to realize both what he was thinking and what a few other people were probably thinking. “Nobody knows Mitch. Nobody gets to know when they become old. Nobody gets to know when they die.”
Mitchell dried his eyes on his sleeve. He’d never been so confused, but he remembered all the things he’d done with the explorers. One thing he’d learned was that he wouldn’t grow if he just stood on that roof crying.
The two explorers strapped themselves into the helicopter. Celia was happy to see the keys in the pilot’s seat. For a second she wondered if helicopters even had keys normally, or if that was part of the ‘lies’ Lorne had mentioned. She knew the helicopter wasn’t real, but she didn’t know if she was.
The blades got up to speed and they rose into the sky. Celia breathed out slowly as she stabilized the vehicle. Then she sent it in the direction of the mayfly.
Mitchell couldn’t help but stare at the ground. He couldn’t remember ever being this high. They flew by the explorer center, the roof of which had collapsed. Even the small decorative trees around the entrance had cracked and toppled.
Mitchell next noticed that they flew by his house. After that, the cloud cognition research facility. Did all the ghosts escape? he wondered and checked the building for damage. Strangely enough, it was completely intact. Odder still, Mitchell noticed the building had a very distinct shape when viewed from above. It was much larger and rounder than he’d initially thought, and there was some kind of design on the roof. It looked like… an eagle with its wings spread wide. Don’t I have that badge? Mitchell thought. I know I’ve worn that.
Before he could think on it any more, they caught up with the bug. The crawling beast had stopped in the street for a brief moment, but just to stretch its wings. It flapped them in preparation for take-off, sending clouds of dust out to its side. Mitchell looked down and spotted Lorne, fearlessly leaping between rooftops. The old bloody figure that had been one of his best friends a few hours ago leapt and stretched his arms like a flying squirrel. He landed on the mayfly’s back as the last of its six legs left the road.
Celia pulled the helicopter out from above the creature so they wouldn’t collide with it. The force of its great wings caused their craft to rock back and forth.
“I thought we had to kill it,” Mitchell said, little fingers turning white as they gripped the sides of his seat.
“I think… I think Lorne’s going to do it,” Celia said. They both watched as Lorne used all of his new strength to pound a hole in the creature’s back with his fists. A jet of shadow gushed out of the hole, nearly knocking Lorne off. The creature shrieked: a sound that seemed to shake the world. They were too far away, but if they’d been closer the explorers would’ve heard their crazed friend howling in ecstasy as the shadows revealed the truth to him. He could have it all. After absorbing the bug he could take the rest. He could take the rest from everyone else and be a one man storm. The world would’ve been Lorne’s, if it weren’t for the strange luminous fingers that came out of the sky.
They were all shocked to see the projections pierce the very sky, destroy all sound, and pinch the mayfly by its wings. The helicopter shook uncontrollably in the air and began to spin. Celia and Mitchell suddenly lost all awareness of the situation. The world was chaos and they were perhaps the only two in it. They hugged each other tightly and breathed in each other’s ears hoping to hear the sound. Everything around them grew brighter and brighter.
Then there were several moments that were either like death or birth: the two explorers could not decide. They certainly felt very… new.
The city was gone. The mayfly was no more, dragged away by some god. Poor Lorne, in his mad hunger for understanding, was dragged with it. Wherever the other explorers were, they weren’t here. This new world was just Mitchell and Celia. They ended their embrace, stood, and observed their surroundings. They were in the center of a gigantic circle with golden walls a thousand feet high. Everywhere they looked there were comfortable-looking pale objects. Relaxing fountains sprang up in random places.
The two explorers looked at each other and saw that they were both very old. They held hands. Mitchell had grown up. He understood now. Whatever had come before didn’t matter. He was no longer young, but he’d never felt this kind of peace. The couple smiled at each other. They knew, without ever realizing, that they were in love. Here they would have peace.
Holly stepped into the center of the plastic forest once again. She had returned to the research facility to deliver one more thing to her grandfather. Snagging Glenn for another visit had been easy enough, and he even seemed happy to see her this time. That made ditching him so she could return to the medal’s location a little more difficult though.
When she reached it she was shocked to see a swirling disc of vapor some four feet wide. She realized it was one of the storms Glenn had told her about on the first visit. He’d said that the ghosts formed them to ‘feel more like their old selves’. He said he didn’t know exactly what went on inside, but that he liked to think they built little worlds together where they could flourish.
Holly looked at the one in front of her and decided it did not look very healthy. The clouds were extremely dark, and flashes of sick light passed through it infrequently. She was extremely worried that her grandfather was in there somewhere, perhaps getting struck by lightning in the world he’d helped build. Holly got down on her knees and examined it very closely, trying to find some way to help the storm. She started to worry that Glenn would call for her any second. Then, something caught her eye. A small object swirled at the edge of the storm’s eye, caught up in the miniscule wind it generated. She reached out very carefully and lowered her hand like one of those stuffed animal crane machines. She squeezed gently and pulled. A tiny puff of gas dissipated around her fingers. She examined the object.
It was a dead mayfly. She stared at it for a moment, wondering if its ghost had joined the others. It had apparently been the source of the problem, because the storm’s color instantly improved. The lights in it flickered more regularly, like blinking Christmas lights. She put the insect in her pocket so she could discard it somewhere where it couldn’t interfere. Then she pulled out her second gift for her grandfather. She lowered his golden wedding band down into the eye and placed it on top of the medal.
The storm reacted by moving away. It slowly made its way out of the forest. Holly was worried she might have damaged it, but then she noticed a much tinier storm had formed inside the boundaries of the wedding band. There was room enough for just one or two pieces of one or two ghosts. Holly smiled. She had a feeling it would be quite a while before anyone in the facility bothered to check at the heart of their plastic decorations. She knew her grandfather was in that ring somewhere.
Nobody understood the capacity of the ghosts yet, but Holly chose right there to think of her grandfather as he was: Major Mitchell ‘Phoenix’ Baucheck.