Henry rushed down the hallway. He could barely breathe, partly because he’d just full-on sprinted from across the kilometer wide Forward Deployed Advanced Nuclear Testing Department campus but mostly because he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.
Henry ricocheted off bystanders, their confused and shocked faces appearing and disappearing as smudged and distorted blurs. He slammed into a man carrying a box of doughnuts, scattering them everywhere. Henry spun, barely squeaked out an apology before half-tripping, scrambling, careening onward. The man unleashed a cavalcade of expletives after him.
But if he’d seen what Henry had seen some sugary casualties would be the last thing on his mind. He had to alert the major. Everything they knew had just changed. Discovery had been thrust upon them, upon the world. And now it was a question of if they’d be ready or not.
Henry burst through the heavy wood door that stood closed and foreboding at the end of the hall. Nausea doubled him over and he felt the earth pitch and yaw beneath his feet as his brain fought his muscles for blood. His lungs strained against his ribs, trying to suck in enough air. But he couldn’t and even worse, he’d forgotten his inhaler at the observation lab.
He swallowed hard but his tongue was thick and dry and he had to force what little saliva he could muster around it.
“Do you mind explaining to me what you’re doing?” a deep voice boomed.
Henry tried to straighten up but a side stitch sliced through him, doubling him over again. He tried to speak but the words emerged as a wheeze.
“What was that? Aww hell!”
Henry’s throat constricted, his tongue felt like a pufferfish in a tumble dryer, bloated and scaly. He could hear someone rifling through a drawer then finally something thumping on the carpeting at his feet.
A metallic cylinder rolled into view and when he saw what it was all he could do was squint at it in disbelief. How did the major know that…
“All you eggheads seem to have some medical problem or another. Asthma, anxiety, depression, whatever. Sexual dysfunction is one I can’t help you with but after enough of you white coats passed out from panic attacks while presenting your findings to me I decided that instead of waiting while they got you leveled off in the sick bay, might as well be prepared. Now are you going to use it or am I going to have to come over there and stick you in the ass with it?”
Henry finally managed to look up. Major Thomas Ilarius stood behind a metal desk stacked with papers. He was a beanpole of a man with a pointed face and nose with shrewd, small eyes. There was a reason people called him Ichabod behind his back. And only behind his back because unlike the hapless Ichabod, the major would have no problem sticking someone in the stocks for a couple days to think about what insubordination cost.
Henry took the Epipen and primed it. His chest felt like a iron tie was being ratcheted tighter and tighter around it. Darkness encroached at the edges of his vision. Henry closed his eyes and jammed the needle through his khakis. A burning pain spiked through his thigh. His pulse bounded in his ears but when he released his breath it seemed to leave him just a tiny bit more easily.
“That better?” the major said. “Good. Now I hope you have a good reason to barge into my office like a typhoon.”
Henry tried again to explain. “Sir, I’m sorry for the intrusion but I had to alert you. There’s been an, eh, irregularity from the data collected from the testing site of The Big One.”
The major gave Henry the look you’d give a child who just said they’d seen Santa’s sleigh arcing across the sky after you told him there was no Santa.
“I already reviewed the data from the test. It was a success. This planet has never seen a release of energy like that. Krakatoa was a damn cap gun compared to this.”
“I know, sir. The test went perfectly. All the figures line up. It’s the post-event observation that you have to see.” Henry strode across the room to the major’s desk, the thick carpeting muffling his footfalls. He felt like he was riding a wave, a terrifying, glorious wave. Not even Ichabod, with his needling gaze could dampen the ebullience that bubbled from within him. “If I may,” Henry said, passing behind the major’s desk and bending over the keyboard of his laptop.
“Excuse me but you are out of line!”
“You have direct access to all ops. I’m just going to patch you in directly so you see what we see.”
“You can tell me to do that from over there, on the other side of the desk.”
But Henry couldn’t stop. His fingers played the keyboard like jazz, dancing, flying, accessing the post-event observation servers, keying in the sat-ops feed, distant terrestrial feed, seismograph readings, the works. He wanted to share this discovery, his discovery. He was the one who found them, who would birth a new era in understanding the evolution of life on this planet.
Window after window popped into view. And then the one he wanted. Henry stepped aside. “Sir.” He motioned to the monitor.
The major gave him a sidelong stare. Henry was familiar with it. It was the look of someone wondering if he was in the presence of a madman or a fool. Just wait, he’ll see. Henry arched his eyebrows. Go on.
Finally, the major turned his attention to the screen. There was no change in his expression. His face remained as unreadable and steady as ever. Probably after spearheading a test of the largest man-made explosion in human history, the threshold for shock was raised exponentially. The test didn’t just leave a nasty, fearsome hole in the earth’s crust, it had almost obliterated a continent. This changed war as people would know it. No one would dare engage in conventional way anymore. Not with a risk like this on the table. So it was understandable that it would take something truly remarkable to evoke a response. Which Henry thought this qualified as.
“What exactly am I looking at here?” the major asked. He jabbed a bony finger at the screen.
Henry’s chest puffed. Explaining things was the second best part of his job. Right after finding things to explain that no one else knew how to explain.
“So we were running standard post-op observation, measuring for radioactivity, seism-“
“I don’t need a novel. Just what am I looking at?”
Henry turned his attention to the monitor. It showed a massive crater, miles upon miles upon miles wide and miles deep. Miles of slag and radioactive glass that had vitrified in massive frozen rivers that reflected the pounding Australian sun. It was beautiful and alien and terrifying all at once. Henry’s stomach still lurched when he saw it.
Scattered around the depression were raised mounds, deposits that hadn’t been scorched to glass or atomized and cast into the atmosphere. It looked almost like a creche of eggs. That’s what everyone had said when they’d first seen it several days ago. The plan was to send in drones to collect samples. It was just a matter of ensuring the shielding was sufficient to prevent the radioactivity from cooking the circuitry and getting them close enough to get samples before their batteries ran out. That had been the plan. Until the first one started to crack. Or hatch.
Now several of them had split and disgorged their contents. And how quickly those contents had grown.
“Well, there’s no easy way to say it, major, but those are koala bears. Or some kind of distant relative to the modern koala bear. Well, the now extinct koala bear.”
The major made a quiet, “aaaah,” sound.