The prairie dog army kept its distance, staying a mile or more back, well out of rifle range. Bede lowered his binoculars, bit his lip, shook his head. Normally, in their present numbers - something like two or three thousand, he guessed - the dogs would try to close in quickly, and, employing their new, storm-found tactical genius, surround and overwhelm them. Yet they held off; the foot soldiers milling and rolling, barking. Their enlarged heads vibrated ceaselessly. Their high-pitched buzzing - like the alert pulse of a telephone left off the hook too long - wailed out into the vast canyon, echoing off the overgrown, heavily foliated walls. Their commanders, he could identify them by their crimson-painted facial markings, and their sharpened incisors, crouched on boulders. Motionless.
The prairie dogs had been trailing him for a day and half - ever since he had found the survivors - but had never advanced to within more than a few hundred yards.
Bede tucked the binoculars into his thigh pack and started down. He was wedged into the upper branches of the storm-changed Live Oak. The thick leaves provided ideal cover. His descent was disturbingly easy. He practically floated the last yard or so. The scientists back at the Conference Center said that gravity itself had somehow lessened, decreased. There were various theories as to why. Bede only vaguely understood the basic ideas behind them.
Some of the scientists, the ones who were allied with Dr. Randolph, said the substance of the planet's core had been materially distorted by the Storm's ripple effect. Metamorphic Transubstantiation, they called it. This group was composed generally of the technicians and staffers who had worked for Randolph on the Brane Piercing Array, the BPA, as they called it.
An angry but vocal minority, bitterly at odds with Rudolph over the underlying truth of the situation, contended that it was due to Inverse Gravimetric Cross-Dimensional Displacement. Which apparently meant that some of the world's insides might have been physically removed, carved out and claimed by the Rift. This was worse, they claimed, as the Earth might start to cave in on itself over time. This smaller number was made up mostly of non-BPA Caltech faculty who had the good fortune to be inside the field pocket created by the activation of the Large Piercing Transmitter, the LPT - when the Big Bang banged. Biochemists. Hydrologists. Geophysicists. All of them, unlike Bede and the rest of what now passed for the world, were unchanged because of the protection afforded by that pocket, that energy buffer.
Bede didn't really care who was right. The science of it was irrelevant. The practice of it was what bothered him. If he heard a loud noise and jumped, he'd often fly ten feet in the air before he could slow himself. If he were inside, he'd smack his head on the ceiling. If he were outside, on a lamppost. If he wasn't careful, one day he'd trip and sail right off a cliff.
He caught himself. Wait a minute, he thought. That really wasn't as big a worry as it used to be, was it? He almost smiled - just for a second.
The tree's limbs twitched as he launched off. For an awful moment Bede thought it would lash out. He tensed in flight. The tree's shivering subsided and it fell back into a fitful slumber, or what Bede thought of as slumber. Who knew what was really going on inside the tree, or why or how it had changed. Bede relaxed - but not completely. He'd seen one, an old mud-barked Manzanita, kill a fellow scout just days ago, in the foothills above Fontana, or rather what was left of Fontana. It too had seemed dormant - just before its branches had wrapped around the man - Billy Jackson, a decent enough guy who'd been a used car salesman before the Storm - and literally crushed him into pulp.
Bede felt his gorge rise with the memory. A cold nausea, something that came more and more frequently to him as the gravity changed, as the air thinned, salted his mouth. It made his head swim. How much longer, he wondered, could he actually keep this up? This holding on. This charade. This pretense that there was any hope, any chance. He shut his eyes and breathed. Slow down, calm down. Slow down, calm down. This he had learned in prison. He'd learned to whisper it when the bars and the concrete walls were pressing in like the blocks of a vice. He repeated this mantra to himself. Slow down, calm down. Breathe.
One of the little girls said something. Something inarticulate, something that shouldn't have come from the lips of a human. Bede opened his eyes. It was the twin he'd taken to calling Riddle, since her actions and her speech were so utterly baffling. Riddle was staring at him. Her sister, whom Bede had named Talker, had her hand on Riddle's shoulder. Bede had given her the name because she could not only still speak English but could also sing or chant in Riddle's keening animal language, albeit in a dimmer, shakier, more halting manner.
Riddle no longer spoke English; no longer spoke any language Bede could comprehend.
The girls looked scared. Riddle made a piercing noise, like a car alarm and waved downhill, across the curve of the paved road, in the direction of the prairie dogs.
Bede nodded. "Yes," he said, "they're following us - but they haven't attacked and I don't think they will." He stopped, and looked musingly at them both. "But I don't know why."
Riddle smiled unexpectedly, and brilliantly. For a second her face turned into something beyond human, something - Bede inhaled slowly - he could not describe, but something he had seen before. Something feral but beautiful. She hummed. The hum turned to a shriek, then disappeared into a transharmonic ultrasound. At least that what Bede called it. A vibration he could feel in his skin and hair but not hear. Like a tiny tuning fork hit by a pebble of sand.
The girls didn't know their own names anymore. That knowledge, like so much else, was gone. Sucked out by the Storm. He'd found them living in the tool shack of a ruined townhouse in San Bernardino, surviving off pre-packaged junk food and bottled water. They had heard his whistle and crept down to the curbside to see who he was. Two nine-year-old girls, both with red hair, and distant, unreadable blue eyes. Both dressed in filthy rags. They were all that remained of a city that had once held more than two hundred thousand people.
It had been his third and final pass through that city, searching for survivors. Maybe the townhouse had been theirs; the place where they'd lived with a loving mother and father, done homework, watched the Disney Channel, drank hot chocolate, slept under warm blankets. Maybe not. He'd probably never know, and it didn't matter anymore anyway. The Storm had washed away the importance of all that as well.
He had seen from the very first that they were storm-touched. The Storm had left its mark on them, just like it had on the Live Oak he'd climbed, and the prairie dogs, and most of the rest of what was left of the world. The girls were in slow-motion compared to most everything else. Their internal clocks had been reset to three-quarters time. And they had the Look. It was as if they were seeing things he couldn't, at great distance, and in colors he could never imagine.
"We've got to move on," Bede said, trying to sound crisp and confident, not wanting his queasiness to show through.
Talker nodded. "We know." The girl's voice had a weedy timber to it; as if its wind had been exhaled by much larger, much drier lungs than any nine-year-old could possibly possess. "They're coming." She pointed east with a bony, dirt-encrusted hand, toward the still-glowing red haze of Riverside, about forty miles away. "My sister says they're coming."
"Uh huh," Bede replied.
The prairie dog horde was due south.
She continued to point east, like a statue, eyes drilling into the murky horizon. He followed her gaze. Most of the smoke had subsided over the past weeks, but columns of it still lingered. A fluctuating black cloud now hung in the sky. He blinked. He hadn't seen it before. Was it moving? Did it just get bigger? He watched, squinting. No, he thought. No. Nothing. Just the play of the wind, kicking up dust, swirling.
Bede stayed away from Riverside. Everyone stayed away from Riverside. Something worse than the prairie dogs had taken up residence in its empty buildings. Crows. Crows violently changed by the Storm. They seemed to have become semi-intelligent swarm predators. They'd descended upon Riverside about a month before, and somehow razed most of it in a fortnight. The downtown had burned for weeks.
So far as Bede knew, no scout had ever returned from a reconnaissance mission there - even to its outskirts. Not a single one.
"My sister doesn't like them. She says they're flying here to take her away. They tell her bad things. They tell her about bad things they want her to do in their nest. They say she can help them do the bad things, with her special talking and seeing."
Bede pursed his lips. "Right," he said slowly.
"You're not going to let them, are you, Mr. Bede?"
Bede said nothing for a second then, realizing they needed reassurance: "No, I'm not."
Talker nodded. "Good, I'm not either. And neither are her other friends."
The little girl sniffled and wiped her nose. "She likes them," she whispered, as if in reply. Her voice petered away and she drifted into a trance-like silence.
Bede waited a few moments to see if she'd go on. When she didn't, he shrugged and unhitched his canteen from his shoulder strap. It was far too light. He shook it and felt a faint sloshing. Almost empty. He handed it down to the girls, who each drank sparingly, holding the vessel almost religiously in their delicate, grubby hands.
Basically, they had to reach the Conference Center, which was on the farther shore, the north shore, of Lake Arrowhead in the next two days, three at the most. Otherwise, they risked death by dehydration. Alone, he could make it in next to no time - especially if he abandoned the horse and mule. With the girls, though, he was relegated to a crawl.
The Conference Center had been a fully operational retreat for the University of California, and had secure, purified water caches. There would be, could be, no available water along the way. No streams, brooks, pools, ponds. Nothing. The days of free running surface water were probably gone for years to come. If, that is, years passed here.
There was no doubt in Bede's mind that the successful acquisition of water - unchanged water - had become the real key to survival in storm-altered California. Whatever energies or forces or particles that had come out of the Rift, whatever had blown over the Earth and its satellite, the now unrecognizable Moon, had infiltrated everything, contaminated food stores, killed livestock, erased entire species, rearranged mountain ranges, and - most terribly - reconstituted surface water. From what other survivors and other passers-through had told him, the oceans were now an amorphous mass of semi-gelid paste, a bizarre blue-black pudding that could almost be walked over. Their surfaces were buffeted endlessly by slow-moving but gargantuan waves; towering, collapsing, cake-icing waves.
The nearby reservoirs in Pomona, Palm Desert, Upland, even Victorville, were no better. Undrinkable. Only water stored in sealed containers, like plastic bottles, radiators, overhead stilt tanks, was potable. And even that tasted . . . different.
The primary sun was setting in the south, in what had been the south. Two hours to first nightfall. They could not afford to be outside when darkness came.
He lifted the girls onto the mule they shared. As he did so, Riddle reached out and stroked his gift. She smiled and made a humming sound. He looked sharply at her. For an instant he'd felt . . . . He couldn't quite describe it. Bede paused and thought. No, that wasn't true. He could describe it. He had felt happy.
He mounted up himself, catching the mule's tether and tying it off on his pommel.
His bay neighed. The old mare was frightened by the new smells in the air, the scarlet and aubergine swathes cris-crossing the sky, and the incessant cacophony that rose up from the swelling underbrush. Bede didn't blame her for a minute. Those things scared him too.
He led the mule out onto Highway 18 and headed uphill at a strong trot.
At first everyone thought it was sunspot activity, disrupting broadcast activity, shutting down power grids. But then the first of the ripples hit. Transdimensional waves, they were later labeled. Mass communications began to falter. Volcanic eruptions sprang up overnight. Ships at sea, all ships at sea, disappeared. The Moon grew in size and changed in color, becoming a dull green-brown. Accelerated biomassic conglomeration, the papers said. Non-Euclidian geometric expansion on a catastrophic but hopefully temporary basis. Soon explosions could be seen by the naked eye on its surface.
The Rift was finally pinpointed by astronomers in Hawaii. A puncture one billionth the size of a dime in one of the membranes that separated Bede's reality from an infinite number of others. It sat unmoving just outside the moon's orbit. And as it sat it leaked out some of its innards. What had Dr. Randolph's staff called it? Calamityjuice. And it poured out from a reality not aligned with Bede's own. A reality utterly alien. A reality governed by a different set of physical laws.
The origin of Rift was never ascertained, or better, never revealed - at least never back on the old Earth.
Bede knew, of course. Everyone at the Conference Center did. Which was why tempers were always so high there.
How had Dr. Randolph explained it to Bede? Imagine if suddenly brand-new letters were introduced randomly into the alphabet, into books, or brand-new number sequences added to formulas. Imagine if at that same time some of the traditional letters or numbers were deleted, replaced, cancelled out. Imagine how that would change things. How books would be unreadable, equations unsolvable. Now, take that idea and apply it to molecular dynamics, energy systems, and DNA structures. That was the Storm.
And what did it bring?
Absolute chaos. Absolute chaos until the Big Bang - when the whole world flashed and everyone fell asleep.
Bede was a murderer. A double murderer, technically. Tried, convicted, sentenced and serving out. He'd killed a pregnant woman in the course of a botched liquor store robbery. Shot her in the gut with his Glock when she'd tripped over broken glass in the aisle and fell toward him. He hadn't meant to. And he'd felt pretty damn bad about it. Said he was sorry. He was a con man, a cheat, a liar and a pool hall hustler, not a killer. But that hadn't mattered. The prosecutor had argued Felony Murder and won. The jury had given him 25 to life. The penal assignment council had sent him to the new maximum security lock-down in Victorville.
Oh, he'd done time before, county time for petty theft, for being drunk and disorderly, penny ante garbage like that. Nothing at all like this. Permanent isolation from the jail population. A separate ten by ten "exercise yard" ringed by spiral wire and spike fencing. And extremely limited visitation. He didn't actually have any visitors, of course. His mother was dead from cancer, his father long gone - somewhere in South Africa, his sisters strangers to him. But the idea of it hurt.
When the Big Bang came, obliterating the rules, destroying the system, and causing virtually all of humanity to simply vanish, he had somehow been missed by it all, overlooked, left unscathed. Well, more or less unscathed.
There had been a loud roaring noise - inside his head, in his bones, all around him. It was followed by a blackness deeper than any night. He had been smoking a cigarette in his exercise yard when it hit. A tall, thin hard-faced grifter in overalls, his pet pigeon - Freeman - perched on his shoulder. When he came to, he was alone. No other inmates. No guards. Not the Warden. Not even Freeman.
And he was different. Something had been given to him. Something that frightened him at first.