Chapter One of The Robinsons' Dark Matter

Hello, all!  I thought I'd post the first chapter of my new book, The Robinsons' Dark Matter.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

CHAPTER ONE: THE BLUE GENERAL

Ernest Thornberry had managed, through a combination of coincidence and bad luck, to show up at the barn just in time for the end of the world. Elizabeth knew he meant well, but the man had no idea what he’d stumbled into. He probably had some free time and decided to make an unscheduled delivery. That was just the sort of man he was. And now he probably wouldn’t make it home alive.

“How’re you folks doin’?” Ernest wore a friendly grin as he wiped sweat from his forehead. A few strands of white hair stuck to his wet scalp stubbornly. He didn’t notice the fifty-pound bag he’d just set down next to the building was beginning to distort as it settled, like a reflection of itself in a fun-house mirror. Elizabeth maintained steady eye contact with him and hoped he didn’t look down. If they got him back in his truck and out of here quickly, he might have a chance.

Bill had been close to melting down before they’d noticed Ernest unloading his pickup. Now he seemed positively frozen, standing beside her uselessly. Elizabeth poked him in a the ribs and he gave a start, stepping forward and—of all things—shaking Ernest’s hand.

“Great to see you, Bill!” Ernest shook back with surprising vigor for his years and turned to give her a smile and a nod. “Elizabeth, you sure haven’t let this weather get to you. Doesn’t look like there’s a drop of sweat on either of you.”

“That’s so nice of you to say.” She managed a genuine smile. This had been Deepdale’s hottest summer on record and southern Colorado’s second hottest. Even with the sun nearing the horizon the air remained thick and still. Ernest wasn’t generally a suspicious person, but she didn’t know how they were going to get rid of him cleanly. There was no telling how much time they had, in any case. Things might have to go in a different direction.

Bill must have had a similar thought because he finally found his voice and said, “You should not have come here, Mr. Thornberry.” Despite the knot in her stomach Elizabeth had to suppress a laugh. She knew Bill was trying to be intimidating from the tone of his voice and the odd way he held himself—like a gunslinger with a shootout scheduled for high noon—but anyone else watching would think he’d recently pulled a groin muscle.

Ernest missed Bill’s meaning entirely. He smiled amiably and said, “Oh it wasn’t any trouble. Business was fixin’ to be slow tonight, I figured I’d free up some space in the warehouse. I can’t believe how tall your wheat crop is. What seed are you using?”

Bill’s posture relaxed a bit. “New one, actually. We’ve been working on the bioengineering for a while now—”

“That’s awfully sweet of you Ernest,” Elizabeth interrupted, “but it isn’t a good time right now. We’re…expecting company. Could you come back—”

“But why would you want it to grow—Company, you say?” Ernest looked around at the barn and the surrounding field of wheat. “Odd place for that. Oh! Might be they’ve arrived, though.”

She turned to look where he was pointing. Just beyond the far corner of the building, partly hidden from view by the barn itself was a black sedan. Her skin went cold. Bill’s eyes were wide and he looked at her in alarm. He began walking toward the car. She followed him, struggling to keep up. When they turned the corner at the far end of the barn, no one was there. The car was empty. She felt the hood, it was still quite hot. The vehicle hadn’t been parked more than a few minutes. Bill reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a bullet-shaped capsule the size of his thumb. He held it over the hood with his left hand and twisted the top clockwise about a quarter-turn. A single drop of liquid fell from the capsule onto the hood.

“What’s that you got there?”

Elizabeth spun around, startled to realize Ernest had followed them over. She opened her mouth, searching for something to say that would distract him, but a flash of white at the corner of her eye caught her attention. It was a fifty-pound bag of fertilizer. Flying through the air. The bag connected with the side of Ernest’s head with crushing force. His body immediately went slack and the blow knocked him sideways. Ernest, either unconscious or dead—it was impossible to tell which—went flying towards the side of the barn. Instead of slamming into the wall his body slowed unnaturally, as if falling through maple syrup. His head seemed to deflate as he came within a hair’s breadth of the wall and his entire body pancaked into two dimensions.

Ernest’s distorted, limp form hung unnaturally in the air for a moment then rebounded, falling away from the barn as leisurely as it had struck. A second later the laws of physics righted themselves and he collapsed unceremoniously onto the ground with all three dimensions once again intact. Elizabeth could see he was still breathing, which gave her some small relief.

Looming into view beyond Ernest’s crumpled form was a very large man, another bag of fertilizer hanging from his right hand as if it were a pillow. The military dress uniform he wore looked freshly ironed but one of the jacket buttons hung by a thread. On the brim of his cap an embroidered design was just visible in the fading light of dusk. White clouds shooting lightning bolts. The cap was pulled down low, obscuring most of his face in darkness.

“General—”

“Report. Previous 12 hours.” The man’s baritone voice blew through whatever Bill had been about to say. The hood of the sedan began to talk.

“Mineral composition on tires and undercarriage suggests point of departure was Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. DNA and cellular decay analysis indicate two recent passengers. Identities: General Richard Page, Captain Paul Hann. Unidentified non-native DNA also detected. Forensic indicators suggest—”

“Discontinue,” Elizabeth already knew what it was going to say. Her eyes had adjusted and she could see the dark red stains on the vehicle’s upholstery now.

General Page leered at her and set the bag of fertilizer down on the ground. “Of all your work, Elizabeth, those nanolyzers were always my favorite. How many in a drop of water again? I’m always surprised at the level of detail.”

“We can’t let you in, Richard.” Bill looked very small compared to the General, but he stood resolute and unwavering before him nonetheless.

Page’s broad shoulders dropped a bit as he took a deep breath and fell into a slightly more relaxed posture. “Don’t fight me on this,” his eyes moved from Bill to Elizabeth, “How old is Nathan now? Seven? Eight?” He took a step closer to her. “And Victoria? She’s a spark plug, that one. I know you’d do anything to protect them. I’m only—”

“You aren’t protecting any children, you’re spreading a disease.” Bill moved between the General and Elizabeth. “You’re sick, infected. Maybe if you—we can work on a cure together. Just come back to the base.”

“I am not sick!” In a single motion Page hefted the fifty-pound bag at his feet and hurled it past Bill’s head, shattering the car window. The General’s eyes were still hidden but rage and frustration were plain in his voice. The bag, now cracked open, balanced precariously on an edge of broken glass while a steady stream of fertilizer poured down both sides of the car door. Page took a slow, even breath. He removed his hat and even in the fading light Elizabeth could see his skin had a greenish-blue tinge that was wholly unnatural.

“I’m not sick,” he repeated, more softly this time, “I am stronger than I have ever been, feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life. I have been blessed.”

No one spoke. Elizabeth could sense Bill racking his brain for an idea. Part of her was afraid he’d do something stupid, but at this point stupid might be better than nothing. They couldn’t stall for much longer. Time was up.

“Open the barn.”

General Page’s voice was perfectly calm, but there was no mistaking the weight behind the words. The General had given an order. In his current state, Elizabeth didn’t want to think about what he might do to someone who disobeyed a direct order. Still, they couldn’t let him into the building. It would be like handing him keys to the planet. Within a month the United States would be an infected wasteland and the rest of the world would follow.

Page wasn’t on his own, though. He might not be able to get past the building’s protective boundary without them, but his handler certainly could. If they’d just gone inside instead of letting that old fool distract them—but no. It wasn’t Ernest’s fault. They simply hadn’t had enough time. No matter how she went over it in her mind, she couldn’t see a way out of this. One way or another, the world was about to end. Badly.

“Why did you kill Paul?”

Bill’s question surprised her as much as it did Page. The General blinked and studied the ground for several seconds before answering.

“Captain Hann committed an act of treason against his country. Death is the punishment for treason.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you? That disobeying you is the same as treason?” Bill took a step closer to the General and Elizabeth felt her muscles go rigid. “You ordered him to betray his country. You’re the one who is guilty of treason.”

For a moment she was sure Bill would suffer the same fate as the car window—and Paul Hann—but Page narrowed his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards. He knew Bill was trying to provoke him. Page took a step back without seeming to give ground and looked at both of them thoughtfully. Behind those eyes she knew he was thinking through scenarios, weighing options, considering every potential way to achieve his objective. The most frightening thing was how resigned she was to defeat. At least if Page killed them right now they wouldn’t have to watch everything that came after.

A soft moan rose from somewhere between them, briefly startling everyone. Ernest Thornberry lay sprawled on the ground. His breathing was shallower than before. Elizabeth didn’t know the full extent of the man’s injuries, but it seemed unlikely he would survive them. Even more so when Page lifted his foot to deliver a kick to the man’s skull. Before his boot connected with bone the General stopped himself, cocking his head to one side as if listening. Then with an unmistakable look of satisfaction he turned around.

Turning the corner at the other end of the barn, walking past Ernest’s parked truck and moving towards them with strides that were both impossibly fast and yet incredibly graceful was a woman with long, white hair. She stopped next to the General and looked down at the form of Mr. Thornberry. Glancing up at General Page for a moment, her eyes flashed disapproval but she said nothing.

“Why are you here?” Bill’s voice filled with Anger. “Did you want to see your Frankenstein in action? He killed another man on the way over, if you were keeping count.”

The woman ignored him and retrieved a small stone from the inside pocket of her simple, gray suit. Bending down, she moved the instrument over Ernest Thornberry’s head and studied the symbols that appeared on it briefly. To no one in particular she said, “A slight fracture to the skull but no internal bleeding or swelling. Sixty-eight years, approximately, but in excellent health for his age. This man should live.” She stood up and focused her attention on Elizabeth and Bill as if she’d already forgotten the man laying at her feet.

But that was wrong. Elizabeth had watched the woman closely and she hadn’t just scanned Ernest. She had healed him. Not completely, but some. It had been very quick but Elizabeth was certain what she had seen. Some color was returning to Ernest’s face and he’d begun to snore softly.

Bill hadn’t seemed to notice. He moved towards the woman and Page put a hand out in warning.

“General Page, you’ll find my vehicle on the opposite side of the building. Please wait for me there.” She was two feet shorter than the man and a fraction of his weight but there was an unquestionable air of authority about her. For the first time, the General seemed uncertain.

“But they haven’t—”

“They’re my responsibility,” she said. “I’ll take care of them. Rest assured, we’ll be through those doors within the hour.”

Page was used to giving orders, not taking them. Still, despite the conflicting emotions flitting across his face he turned and began walking in the direction she had come from. She waited until he was out of earshot and then in a very low voice said, “I have been a fool, and I owe you both an apology I know you cannot accept. That man…what he has become genuinely terrifies me. I am ending the settlement project.”

Bill’s anger was replaced with confusion and then shock. Elizabeth hardly dared believe the woman. Then the air was pierced by a thick wailing, like a great beast had been wounded. The sound filled the space all around them, cutting off abruptly. Bill glanced at the old woman, who stood passively now, her eyes lowered. He took Elizabeth by the shoulder and the two of them ran past her, past the parked vehicles and around to the other side of the barn.

What they saw when they turned that corner stopped them in their tracks. Close to a dozen military personnel stood around an enormous dark bubble as it rolled violently back and forth on the ground. Two of them had netguns, designed as a non-lethal weapon to take an individual down, but neither of them had fired. The man who had was holding what looked to be an overly-elaborate pump water pistol.

“Major Wilkinson,” Bill looked surprised and relieved to see the man. Wilkinson glanced and gave a slight nod to acknowledge them, but there was a pained look in his eyes and he kept them averted.

From inside the dark bubble General Page’s voice came, a muffled, echoing growl filled with rage and hate, “Release me immediately, that’s an order! I am your commanding officer! I’ll tear your heads off for this!”

Elizabeth caught pieces of conversation from nearby soldiers as she and Bill walked towards Wilkinson, “…can’t believe the General’s gone mad,” and, “I don’t think crazy is the half of it….” It was true. General Page was no longer himself, he was…something new. Something they didn’t fully understand. Something very dangerous. They had been incredibly lucky to end things here, this could have been the beginning of something far worse.

Bill stopped a few feet away from Major Wilkinson. He said, “Paul didn’t make it.”

He nodded and said, “I know. We found him on the road a few miles from the mountain. He must have figured out what Page intended and tried to stop him” His voice sounded tight and he took a deep breath before continuing. “Captain Hann was a good man, and a friend.” Looking around, he said, “Where has she gone?”

Elizabeth scanned the crowd for the old woman, but knew she would be far away by now. “She is just gone, and let’s be thankful for that,” she said. Bill nodded in agreement.

“She left us her ship,” Wilkinson gestured over his shoulder. At first glance there seemed not to be anything there, but after staring for a few seconds it was just possible to make out the faint outline of something quite large.

“I suspect she has access to another,” Bill replied.

They stood there in silence for a few moments and the hum of helicopter blades could be heard in the distance. The helicopter that arrived a few minutes later was a large one with two rotors, clearly designed to transport cargo. It had the normal United States Air Force markings on the side and was not fitted for stealth operations, so it was extremely noisy. Luckily, nosy neighbors were few and far between this far outside of town.

As they watched, several men unloaded a giant wooden crate and removed one of the sides, while a half-dozen others rolled the bubble towards it. The bubble itself had shrunk considerably and was now only about twice the General’s size, which was still very large. From inside it, the muffled voice which had been quiet for some time suddenly spoke again.

“Bill? Elizabeth?” Page’s voice sounded worn out and tired now. Wilkinson motioned for the men to step back and nodded to Bill. He and Elizabeth approached the captured General.

It was difficult to see through the substance of the General’s prison but there were enough lights from the soldiers and the helicopter that they could make out his face on the inside of the dark bubble. The man’s expression was one of determination, and Elizabeth found it unsettling.

“I am a patient man.” the General’s words were spoken with a crisp enunciation, as if he knew how muffled his voice was and wanted to make sure every word came through loud and clear, “My children will come for me. You brought your children into this world to save the humans, but my children will come for them as well.”

Elizabeth tried to keep her face impassive but Bill looked very uncomfortable. Page saw it and smiled.

“You thought I didn’t know about your plans? Well, it doesn’t matter. I promise you now, your children will play a central part…in humanity’s extinction.”

Neither of them could meet Page’s eyes.

“You’ve already predicted that possibility, haven’t you? Always with your equations and probabilities. Lie to yourselves, if it helps you sleep at night. In the cold light of reality it’s already inevitable.”

There were a few seconds of dead silence, then Wilkinson stepped between them, shattering the tension.

“That’s enough. Load him up.”

To Bill he said, “Page isn’t going anywhere. Don’t let him get inside your head.”

Bill looked to Elizabeth and she saw her own fear reflected in his eyes.

***

Ernest Thornberry’s head throbbed. He opened his eyes and closed them quickly as the bright light that flooded in was painful. A few seconds later he tried opening them again and realized the lights had been from the dashboard of an SUV, and weren’t very bright after all.

“You’re awake,” said a woman’s voice

Ernest tried to look around at his surroundings, but was overcome with a wave of nausea.

“Easy there,” it was Bill’s voice, he recognized this time, “You hit your head pretty hard. We’re taking you to the emergency room.”

“What happened?” Ernest was slowly regaining his senses. He tried to determine the last thing he could remember. “There was a black car…” He trailed off and tried to focus his eyes on the road outside.

“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed, “It belonged to a friend of ours. We were walking over to meet him when you tripped and hit your head on a rock.”

Bill looked sheepish, “Yes, I…I should apologize. I forgot there is a ditch there Elizabeth has been asking me to fill in for weeks. It’s my fault you were hurt.”

“Oh, please don’t worry yourself about it. I’m sure it was my own feet that were the problem.” Ernest put his palms to his temples and rubbed them in a circle. After a few turns most of the remaining pain receded. “Thank you both for taking such good care of a clumsy old man.”

When they arrived at the hospital Elizabeth helped him sign in while Bill parked the car. “Really, there’s no need,” he said. “Go home, be with your kids.”

Her eyes teared up for a moment, taking him by surprise. “Don’t do that! Scout’s honor, I’m fine.” It was nice to know she felt that strongly about his well being, but he definitely didn’t need to see any crying.When Bill came in Ernest insisted he’d be fine and thanked them profusely for all their help. After some reassurances and coaxing on his part they finally left, reluctantly. He felt lucky to have such great neighbors and customers. No. Friends! Folks in Deepdale were decent, but he didn’t think most would go so far out of their way for an old man who knocked his head. He’d traveled all over Colorado and even some of northern New Mexico. People were mostly the same everywhere. The world needed more good, normal folks like Bill and Elizabeth Robinson. Those two set the right example for what being a good human being was all about.