The Alchemy of Oblivion
by Glenn M. Diamond
Dr. Harrison Hayes admired the self-reinforcing beauty of this
perfect madness. After all, the world couldn't really be ending before
his eyes, could it? Little doubt remained concerning the outbreak of
delusions and hysteria, now confirmed across the globe. News reports
were barely coherent, making them strangely accurate in conveying the
bewildering state of affairs. It wasn't surprising the authorities
suspected a bioweapon or engineered virus; so little was known at this
stage of the crisis.
No, he darkly thought, it wasn't people who had gone crazy, it was the world itself.
Regardless of the taint of circular reasoning, he believed the
hallucinations were the accurate perceptions of a new, shifting
reality. For Hayes had stumbled on chilling evidence of a much bigger
threat; that physical existence was winding down like a tottering
gyroscope and before it ultimately ended with the disintegration of
matter, the world would first appear gripped by insanity.
On the plus side, Hayes allowed for the hopeful possibility he was
wrong. Despite being the leader of an elite team of scientific
troubleshooters, he could have misplaced a decimal point somewhere. In
any case, he didn't have long to wait. The latest measurements from his
odd apparatus suggested that days, perhaps only hours, remained.
The meeting was tomorrow, and for now Hayes was grateful to be at
home with his wife Sylvia, who dozed lightly a few feet away. This was
their special place; a thick area rug on the floor in front of the
fireplace rimmed with several large pillows. It was easy to lie here
and forget about anything that needed, at least for a short time, to be
Also of great relief was the fact the other members of his team were
home with their families. When the White House contacted him two days
ago to convene an urgent meeting of the so-called "Alchemist's Club,"
he was able to arrange it via secure videoconference. All things being
equal, nobody wants to be stuck in some dirty airport snack bar when
the world ended.
Hayes was curiously calm, and given the unprecedented circumstances,
he couldn't account for this. The stress was exhausting and perhaps he
simply didn't have enough energy to worry about it anymore. Not enough energy!
He smiled. If this thing blew over, he might get a chance to use that
line at the next meeting of the International Thermodynamics Society.
"Something funny darling?" Hayes didn't realize Sylvia was watching him.
"Oh... just a little work humor. How are you feeling?"
"Good. No, not good, wonderful. I don't know how to explain
it; I know half the world's gone mad but I feel so peaceful. I guess
tranquility is my brand of insanity because suddenly I'm ready to give
up this frantic business of selling houses."
"What? Do you mean it?"
Sylvia nodded enthusiastically and Hayes reached over to encircle
her with a passionate embrace. They held each other in silence for a
few precious moments while the world seemed far away. Sylvia gently
pushed him back to look him in the eye.
"Darling... I know better than to ask about your work, but--you know
something about all this--don't you? You have some idea of what's
He didn't know what to say, or if it even mattered.
"Well, I am working on a theory, but frankly... it's nuts."
* * *
The next morning a groggy Hayes greeted the day with one skeptical eye which he slowly opened and examined the room. It's still there,
he thought. Reassuring sounds filtered from downstairs in the kitchen
and so he rose and hurried through his morning routine pausing only to
kiss Sylvia as she left for the office.
Switching on the TV news and sitting down at his computer, Hayes
soaked up as much as he could. The crisis was still in its first week,
as marked by the initial flood of bizarre news reports. Paging through
his regular on-line sources he found the unseemly headline "Global Markets Surge Despite Madness."
Other headlines spoke of missing persons, lost pets, malfunctioning
computer networks, strange weather, and just about any type of
breakdown, whether mechanical, electrical, or biological.
Hayes left the house and a short time later was waiting in line to
buy his coffee at the local Grab n' Go when he noticed the densely
tattooed and randomly pierced young man at the register. Generally,
such a sight would leave him muttering about the decline of Western
civilization, but today he managed only a detached curiosity about why
anyone would want to resemble the victim of a bizarre tackle box
Tackle Man was dawdling, unable to close the deal on a pack of
cigarettes. Hayes caught the eye of Molly, the petite young brunette
cashier who smiled at him with raised eyebrows and a polite shrug.
"Look," she gently told the man, "I'm very sorry but we don't carry
Ashton 100's Green. We've never carried them, only the regulars."
The man had arrived at some painful crossroads. He openly grimaced
while sweeping his palm backwards over his thick hair, then began
absently fingering the various metal loops and studs sprouting from his
"But I swear I've bought them here before. Oh, this is SO jacked up. Just give me the regulars and ten bucks on pump three."
Meanwhile, there was a sharply-dressed woman between Hayes and the
man, and another drama was unfolding with her. She looked to be in her
low forties, possibly a banker or realtor, and immediately reminded him
of Sylvia. A quiet battle raged between her and her smart phone as
evidenced by her pawing and tapping at the screen while muttering soft,
ladylike grunts. Momentarily self-conscious, she turned around to face
Hayes, whom she addressed with a sheepish smile. "Damn things."
"Anything I can do?" he offered.
"Well, it's not the phone. It's BlabbIt. I just don't understand why they did it."
"Sorry, I don't know what you mean." Hayes hated apologizing for his ignorance of social media.
"Oh. Well, BlabbIt is now just forty-six characters. It used to be one hundred twenty-five, now it's only forty-six."
"That's terrible." Hayes noted with complete insincerity.
"You bet it is. How can anyone Blabb with just forty-six characters?"
By the time he finally paid for his coffee, Hayes had been waiting
so long he needed a pit stop before continuing to his office. Upon
entering the men's room, he was irritated to again encounter Tackle
Man, who was standing at the sink staring at his reflection in the
mirror. He obsessed over his piercings, touching each one gingerly with
a look of dismay, as if he just realized they were radioactive. After
Hayes finished up and began approaching the sink, the man finally
noticed him and moved towards the door. Pausing, he glanced back and
pleaded to Hayes, "Why do I have all these damn things? One should be
Hayes struggled to recognize if, or how this man fit the pattern.
Obviously, something had changed with him, and change might be a key to
this puzzle. He considered the idea of 'change' in the deeper sense of
'transition', which triggered a vivid memory of his honeymoon in Maui
with Sylvia. He recalled the overwhelming beauty of the turquoise sea,
the lush emerald jungle, and the crystal stars against the rich
blackness of the clear night sky.
On the third day, they drove to the blustery summit of Haleakala
Crater, ten thousand feet up. It was during the steep thirty-eight mile
drive back down to sea level when they noticed it--the amazing series
of transitions in climate and ecosystem. One moment they were in
frozen, windswept tundra; the next, a desert-like chaparral, then a
sleepy Mediterranean hill-country and finally a steamy tropical
Hayes believed he had found another transition, happening inside the
very fabric of matter itself. It may have started days or weeks or even
centuries ago, but it was now accelerating to some mysterious
culmination. In its aftermath, what would remain? He never went in for
the metaphysical, but lately found himself more receptive to
considering the immaterial world beyond what we see and touch.
Sometimes even the most skeptical scientists have been known to hedge
Hayes glanced at his watch, cursed softly, and hastened his exit
from the store. A fresh line of customers had formed, from whom Hayes
instantly detected an air of impatience. Molly smiled and shook her
"We sure are going nowhere fast, Dr. Hayes."
"Faster than you could imagine, Molly."
* * *
Hayes got on the highway and began surfing the satellite radio
stations for any useful news. How do you compile, let alone summarize,
millions of innocuous anecdotes of people going a bit loopy or
suffering mild hallucinations? Does Big Media care if someone discovers
five tomato plants in the garden when they're absolutely certain they
planted six? Should it make headlines if a person notices their car is
a slightly different color, or their wife is missing a mole on her
shoulder? It was this type of story, repeated thousands of times, which
defied normal journalistic treatment.
The meeting was in a half hour and he was cutting it close. The
two-lane state highway bisected the bucolic expanse of wooded hills
dotted with small dairy farms. He'd taken this route a thousand times,
but today it looked wrong. Just as he asked himself "Wrong how?" his phone began playing the opening guitar riff from Crosby, Stills, and Nash's Woodstock. It was Sylvia; he put her on speakerphone.
"Hello, dear, everything okay?"
"No, Harry, it's not okay. My eight o'clock never showed. I tried
calling him but his phone's been disconnected or something, but it gets
worse. Nobody likes me anymore."
"Honey, that's ridiculous," he sighed before remembering all bets
were off when it came to what was ridiculous and what wasn't. "What are
you talking about?"
"It's BuddyNet." Good Lord, Hayes thought. More social media nonsense.
"Yesterday, I had nearly two hundred and fifty Buddies. This morning I
only have one hundred and seventy. Overnight, I've lost eighty Buddies!
What's worse, they didn't UnBuddy me, it's like I never had them to
Hayes wanted to ignore this, but couldn't. It might fit the pattern.
"Okay, it's mysterious, but considering everything that's going on right now, well..."
"I know, but I get the strangest feeling it's something you would
understand. What's that thing you're always talking about--when a hot
cup of coffee gets cold sitting on the counter?"
Hayes nearly gasped at the innocence of such a profound question and struggled to say that one powerful word:
* * *
Five miles north of town amidst wide stands of birch and maple was
an unmarked turnoff joining a narrow paved driveway winding upward
towards the crest of a gentle hill. Even those familiar with the area
could easily miss the turn if they weren't paying attention. Hayes
started slowly up the drive feeling a growing reluctance. Normally, he
jumped at the chance to begin a new project, but this was different. He
was a part of the story like everyone else and this exacted a price;
the loss of his scientific detachment. Hayes wanted nothing to do with
it and fought a strong urge to simply get out of the car and wander off
through the trees, which were cool and quiet and in the fresh green of
spring. Very fitting, he reflected, that he'd just entered the grounds
of a former insane asylum.
Visitors to Kessler House often assumed it was a creation of Frank
Lloyd Wright. The sleek lines, expansive glass, and broad cantilevered
sections made that a good bet, but in reality, the only connection to
Wright was its rural Wisconsin location. After operating for twenty
years the facility was closed by budget cuts and ultimately fell under
the custodianship of the National Parks Service who renovated it for
use as a remote site for discrete government meetings and training
events. Hayes was fortunate enough to have a permanent office there. He
parked his car and entered the main lobby.
A few of the regular staff were gathered around the reception desk
when Hayes entered, and they greeted him enthusiastically. Of course,
they were probably hoping for some inside information, but he didn't
want to talk to them and tried to deflect feelings of cowardice as he
offered only a few pleasantries before passing into the main hallway.
Arriving in front of a heavy wooden door, Hayes gathered himself for
a moment before entering the conference room. There he encountered the
other members of his team, virtually present on three large video
monitors placed in a wide arc opposite the head of the table. They were
all there; Breslin the M.D., Ranbee the astrophysicist, and the young
computer genius, Launsby.
"Good morning everyone and thanks for your availability at such
short notice." There was a hurried exchange of muttered greetings
before Hayes continued.
"We haven't met in a while, so let me review how this game works.
Among our various clients is Dr. Laura Hadley, the President's science
advisor. Generally, she contacts us if the normal intelligence or
military channels come up empty on a problem, or if they need some
creative alternatives to what the establishment provides. She's the one
that stuck us with the 'Alchemist's Club' moniker, by the way, because
we're supposed to turn any crap they throw at us into gold. So whatever
we come up with, I've got until four p.m. eastern to give it to her and
the clock is ticking. Each of you was assigned a different aspect of
this problem, and I have my own ideas which you'll hear last. Let's go
ahead and get started with Liz."
Hayes nodded to the striking woman appearing on the monitor to his
left, mid-fifties, elegant, with long silver hair and a remarkably
youthful face. This was Dr. Elizabeth Breslin, chief of neurosurgery
from the prestigious Reynolds Clinic near Minneapolis.
Dr. Breslin consulted the copious notes she'd taken over the past
two days. "Okay, Harry. I suppose I get most of the focus on this one,
but I don't mind saying I'm baffled. Unless the rest of you can come up
with something, I'm afraid a real-life Merlin might have been a better
choice for this assignment.
"I was asked to investigate reports of widespread delusions, memory
dysfunction, hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenic behavior, etc.
Analysis of disease outbreaks normally begins as a needle-in-a-haystack
problem; finding a locus of infection, common transmission vectors,
etc. This time the challenge is too much data. There is no
center, no starting point. We are confronted with a massively parallel
problem; millions of haystacks consisting of nothing but needles.
"In the short time I've had to look into it, everything is
anecdotal. As with most pandemics, initial data are generated by first
responders, namely paramedics and the local ER. These reports contain
everything from acute anxiety to full blown psychotic episodes."
Hayes was already growing anxious. "What does it add up to?"
"Not a clue," she confessed, "but it's still too early for much of
the blood work. Initial lab results are turning up the same things you
would expect in the normal, asymptomatic population. It could be a
neurotoxin, but unless we can isolate it or identify the transmission
mechanism, all we can do is dispense tranquilizers. Supplies of the
most common types are already dwindling."
"Okay, Liz. I guess we need to stay with the toxicology, but for
what it's worth I don't think we're dealing with either a toxin or a
pathogen." Hayes shifted his focus to the monitor directly facing him,
which contained the image of Dr. William Ranbee, Professor of
Astrophysics at MIT. "Have you found anything along the lines I
Ranbee, on his best days, had the look of an aging mad scientist,
complete with ill-fitting tweed jacket, thick glasses, and bristly hair
sprouting in tiny clumps from unflattering places. Few would guess he
was only forty-four.
"Hello, everyone. The good doctor of thermodynamics suggested that I
ask some of the faculty if they've encountered unexplained problems
with lab experiments, electronic instruments, faulty measurements, etc.
I guess the idea was to find out if this 'madness' somehow extended
into the physical world. It was a wild idea, but of course, I should
know better than to underestimate Harry. It turns out the first person
I talked to, a grad student in physics, complained about a
"Excuse me, EDX?" The question came from the last member of the
team, reclining with his feet up on a conference table two thousand
miles away in Palo Alto. Craig Launsby was only twenty-nine but well on
his way to becoming a titan in the exploding field of "Big Data"
analytics. He indulged a nervous habit of twirling a pencil around his
fingers as he spoke.
"Sorry," Ranbee explained, "energy dispersive X-Ray analysis. It's
an instrument that tells you exactly what something is made of at the
atomic level--which elements, and in what proportions. The student was
having trouble calibrating the machine, which involved analyzing a
reference sample of gold ore his professor had once found during a
camping trip. Since the sample never changed, it was a good way to
check the machine. What he told me next made no sense at all."
Hayes interrupted Ranbee with a wild notion: "Let me guess. The grad
student was trying to figure out why the machine said the sample was
becoming more pure each time they measured it."
Ranbee reacted with sheer disbelief. "Good God, Harry, that's precisely it. How on earth did you know?"
"I'm sorry to jump the gun Bill, I'll explain after you and Craig
are done." Ranbee didn't have much else to report, confessing that in
an academic setting it was tough to get information from a staff that
disliked going out on a limb. He deferred to his young colleague from
Craig Launsby was already a Silicon Valley billionaire despite being
reclusive and unconcerned about accumulating great wealth. Combining
brilliance in computer science and statistics, Launsby was the ultimate
data miner; a scientific fortuneteller who founded LaunScape Analytics
and its advanced software capable of reading the trillions of digital
breadcrumbs sprinkled daily throughout cyberspace.
Launsby took his feet off the table, stopped twirling his pencil,
and looked soberly into his webcam. "This is a tough one. Dr. Breslin
is spot-on; the problem is too much data. One concept that's starting
to emerge could be loosely described as a worldwide reduction in
complexity. Yes, that sounds nebulous but it seems to be quantifiable.
"Take social media. BuddyNet seems to be collapsing. In the past day
and a half, over three hundred million Buddy connections have
evaporated. BlabbIt traffic is down, and now they've dropped the
character limit to forty-six per Blabb. The world seems to be losing
social connections, blog posts, comments, emails, you name it. The most
frightening thing is that it can't be traced through server logs or
backup files. It's like they never existed. If this is the work of
hackers it would be a phenomenally sophisticated attack with no obvious
Breslin and Ranbee were flabbergasted. Even Hayes was shocked the problem reached that far.
"Okay, try this: My retail analytics group has flagged a huge
change in buying patterns related to design elements like color. Just
in the past week, paint purchases at home improvement stores have
shifted towards primary colors. People don't want 'terra cotta red' or
'sea foam green'. They simply want red or green.
"By far the most frustrating analytical challenge is the news,
because most of it makes no sense to begin with. Modern news stories
are riddled with non-sequiturs--things like 'fewer people are working,
but unemployment is down'. Facts don't matter due to hidden agendas,
lies, cover-ups, or just crappy journalism. We have to really look hard
to find anything useful.
"Which leads to my personal favorite. It must fit into our puzzle
somewhere, but I can only guess. Did any of you catch Coyote News this
Breslin shook her head in disgust. "Certainly not. I don't waste my time on moronic drivel and naked propaganda."
"Strictly speaking Doctor, I agree with you, but my research team sees them as a valuable contra-indicator."
"Meaning what?" Breslin asked.
"Meaning they lie so consistently, it offers a backwards way of
getting to the truth. I have an entire team working on 'inversion
algorithms' for use in news analysis, but what's really ironic is your
use of the word 'naked'. Let me switch my feed to run the video clip,
which I've obtained directly from sources within the network."
It was the familiar New York studio set of the Coyote News morning
show, 'News Pals'. A sweeping stage trimmed with red, white, and blue
accents. The rear wall was mostly bulletproof glass separating the cozy
studio from the streets of Manhattan. In the middle was a
crescent-shaped couch of dubious ergonomic value, and on the couch were
the three Pals.
The Pals formed a sort-of lurid newscaster sandwich, with the
scantily clad blonde, Suzy-something, in the middle flanked by her two
brunette Ken-doll co-anchors. The placement of the main camera created
an image with Suzy's crotch located in the exact geometric center. Her
contribution to the national discourse involved extremely short skirts
and copious amounts of cleavage. The only thing that concealed her
panties from the rest of the planet was her heroic vigilance in
crossing her legs every moment she was on the air.
The Pals were dutifully reading their teleprompters when the
Ken-doll on the left, Troy-something, drifted off the reservation. He
was staring at Suzy's legs and slowly shaking his head. That's when the
"Sweetheart, you can't live life in the middle of the road, so either put on some clothes or just take the damn things off."
Suzy tilted her head like a golden retriever being told to order a
pizza; then a broad smile came over her face as, deciding on the
latter, she stood up and promptly tugged her skirt right down to the
floor. Launsby explained the seven-second delay saved the network from
catastrophe, and both the man and the woman were immediately placed on
paid leave pending the results of a psychiatric examination.
"Mass hysteria," Dr. Breslin stated flatly, "coupled with repressed
exhibitionism revealed in a moment of weakness and confusion brought on
by some toxin or disease. So what?"
"My sources at the network added some background details," Launsby
countered. "Those who know her and talked with her afterwards described
her as quite rational, down to earth, sincere. Before this episode,
she'd been generally considered as flighty, shallow, and not very well
liked. Afterwards she reported feeling..."
"Purified?" Ranbee offered.
Launsby grinned and slapped the table. "Bingo! The actual word she used was 'cleansed'."
* * *
After a short break the group reassembled, apprehensive yet eager to hear what their team leader had come up with.
"I want to show you all something," Hayes began. After typing some
commands on his laptop, the main monitor on the front wall came to life
behind him. It was a simple animation showing a white background filled
with dozens of black dots plus one red dot in the center.
Next, the dots began to move. It was like watching a game of
computer-generated billiards. The black dots moved around in random
directions, hitting each other and eventually the red dot in the
center, which also began to move. As the red dot moved, its irregular
path was displayed in blue. Numbers appeared; a count of some sort,
which increased as the red dot moved.
"Anyone recognize it?" Hayes quizzed the others.
"Of course," Ranbee said, "Brownian Motion, or 'The Drunkard's Walk' if you prefer."
"Excellent!" Hayes commented. "In 1827 botanist Robert Brown
observed that pollen grains suspended in water moved randomly for no
apparent reason. Eventually it was deduced that individual water
molecules were hitting the grains and causing them to move. This
simulation just illustrates the process. The red dot acts as the pollen
grain, the blue line is the random path it follows, and the numbers
show speed, distance etc."
Next, Hayes showed a photograph of an exotic apparatus sitting on a
lab bench. It looked like a small aquarium filled with shiny particles
of gold glitter suspended in some green fluid. It was surrounded by
lasers, wiring and some instruments.
"Several years ago I built this... device. It's a modern version of
Brown's original experiment, using reflective nanoparticles and a laser
tracking system to follow the path of an individual particle. It
measures Brownian Motion very accurately."
"Why?" asked Dr. Breslin.
Hayes was surprised by the question, as if it was normal for people
to build stuff like this. "Well... originally it was for my
granddaughter's science fair project. I suppose I got carried away."
Puzzled glances were exchanged.
"The key is this: As long as the temperature is fixed, the average
particle will always travel the same distance in say, one minute. It's
so reliable that I've considered developing it into the world's most
"Shortly before this madness outbreak I was playing around with the
detector and made a startling discovery. There's no mistake, the
particles aren't moving as far even though the temperature is
the same. This would be impossible unless..." Hayes paused a moment for
it to sink in, "...there was a reduction in the quantum energy of
"Einstein taught us that matter and energy are related. Matter IS
energy, the energy which keeps electrons spinning and generates the
forces that hold atoms together. I now suspect this energy is winding down,
and doing so at an increasing rate. We've known for a long time that
entropy will eventually cause the universe to freeze at absolute
zero--billions of years from now. Now, I'm not so sure. It might be
happening a lot sooner--maybe not to the whole universe, just a tiny
portion of it."
"How tiny?" asked Breslin.
"The earth, or maybe the Milky Way."
"What?" Launsby gasped.
"Well... I haven't worked out that part yet.
* * *
Despite the great respect his team held for him, Hayes' explanation
was greeted with deep skepticism. Clearly, a graduate degree was no
protection against the madness epidemic.
"No offense," Ranbee said curtly, "but haven't you forgotten a basic
fact? This isn't something that can sneak up on us. There's actually
something called global warming. I think we would have noticed if we
were headed towards absolute zero."
"That's right," Breslin added quickly. "People are showing signs of
acute mental illness, not frostbite. Let's face it, people are seeing
things. Even I..." She paused, reluctant to finish until urged to do so
by the others.
"All right, here goes. We all know a famous ice cream chain, right? How many flavors do they advertise?"
"Thirty-one" was the unanimous reply.
"Not anymore," Breslin announced. "As of last night they only have
thirty. I swear that's what the sign said, 'Thirty Flavors'; a strange
delusion, but a delusion nonetheless."
"Maybe not," Hayes responded. "Quantum theory says it might be so, at least for that moment in time when you saw it."
Launsby was now shaking his head in frustration. "That moment in time?
Please, Dr. Hayes, this is getting pretty far-fetched. Need I invoke
Occam's razor? Delusion or hallucination has got to be the simplest
explanation, and therefore the correct one."
"Fair enough," Hayes agreed, "but hear me out. What we think of as
reality is based on quantum energy states. If this energy drops, they'd
be fewer and fewer states. We may even begin slipping between them,
like a needle skipping on a phonograph. People wouldn't lose their grip
on reality; reality would lose its grip on itself. Even the properties
of matter could change; transmutation could occur."
A flash of excitement flooded Dr. Ranbee's face as he nodded
vigorously. "A fantastic idea, Dr. Hayes! Ironically, you're suggesting
a type of alchemy. The grad student's instrument was working correctly, because the gold sample was becoming more pure."
"Just to play along," Breslin offered, "people grappling with a
changing reality could easily exhibit confusion or hysteria; but I
suppose others might react differently. Those with chaotic lives might
experience the opposite effect, a type of down-shifting perhaps."
"Indeed." Launsby remarked. "They might even take their clothes off
on television. Dr. Hayes, do you realize this fits nicely with all that
New Age mumbo-jumbo about consciousness shifts, the Age of Aquarius,
and the Mayan calendar? I even bought into some of that myself, but we
all know what happened on December 21st, 2012, right?"
"Nothing happened," Ranbee smirked. "It was all nonsense."
Hayes had to concede these points. It did sound very similar,
except for one thing: The metaphysical crowd didn't own a
laser-synchronized nanoparticle Brownian Motion detector. The only
thing he could say was that the Mayans were great astronomers but their
instruments were no more sophisticated than sticks and rocks. They
could have missed it by a few years.
"Believe me," Hayes offered, "My theory is almost as implausible as
the delusions people are reporting, but at least we won't have long to
wait. According to the detector, the process is accelerating so rapidly
I've given up trying to extrapolate it. What happens now is anyone's
guess, including the possibility it just subsides as quickly as it
came. If it's some force acting on the earth, we could pass through it.
* * *
By the time the call from the White House came in over the secure
hard line, the team had developed a position statement and was
handicapping the odds anyone would buy it. With Laura Hadley now
waiting, Hayes went to work.
"Dr. Hadley, our team sends its regards to yourself and the
President. With respect to this crisis, we feel it should be treated as
a pandemic event, possibly involving weaponized agents. We need to
mobilize all lab capacity to process samples for toxicology and
pathology. We need the CDC compiling hospital data to look for spread
patterns, if any. We need to quarantine the most serious patients and
run full tox and psych evals. Meanwhile we wait. It might simply run
Dr. Hadley made a disapproving noise halfway between sigh and
snicker. "Dr. Hayes, surely you understand we've already taken these
steps. You must have something else, just in case we're not dealing
with a strange flu bug or LSD in the water supply. Your charter, and
budget I might add, encourages unconventional thinking. There must be
other avenues of investigation."
Hayes watched the sheepish expressions of his colleagues before
exhaling audibly. "Yes, of course, but I must stress this is highly
speculative. We're investigating evidence of a broader physical
phenomenon, possibly astrophysical. In short, our planet may be passing
through a potent energy field capable of, among other things,
disorienting humans in a similar way that magnetic storms can affect
migratory birds. If this is really the case, we simply don't know if it
will resolve itself or... continue to intensify."
The video link allowed Hayes to observe his team sharing a look of guilt for offering something so sketchy to the White House.
"Good Lord. I'd really hoped to avoid hearing anything like that.
All right, do whatever you can to investigate it further, and let me
know what other resources you need. NASA, NOAA, whatever. Let's
reconvene tomorrow, as long as..." she paused a moment to consider if
tomorrow was even on the calendar. "Just give us something actionable.
The President wants to show leadership, he just doesn't know what his
With this, the weary group exchanged goodbyes and planned, with
circumspection, to meet again tomorrow, having reluctantly left the
strange affairs of the world hanging from a weakening thread. Hayes
watched as the images of Launsby and Ranbee blinked off the monitors,
but Dr. Breslin remained. She had one more question. Her normally
clinical voice had grown soft.
"Dr. Hayes, if you're right about all this, then why aren't we
experiencing physical effects, like extreme cold? I also can't shake
this strange feeling of... expectancy. I'd describe it as both
wonderful and terrifying, yet without any sense of contradiction. Do
you know what I mean?"
Hayes felt it as well, the palpable sense of pending arrival; as if
standing beside the railroad tracks near a blind curve knowing that any
moment a tiny puff of wind or slight rumble would precede the roar of a
sudden, overwhelming, and undeniable force.
* * *
On the drive home, Hayes reflected on her first question. He'd done
his best to explain that our normal conceptions of heat and cold were
meaningless if the foundations of physics were changing. Cold might be
the least, or more accurately last, of their problems.
Sylvia was waiting for him at the front door. She kissed him and led
him back to the living room where gentle flames and soft crackles
emerged again from the fireplace. The two lay close together on the
floor in peaceful silence. Harry was amazed at the metamorphosis of his
wife who'd normally be talking on the phone while sifting through
papers and trying to cook dinner this time of day.
She now resembled the woman he'd met decades ago full of wonder and
love of the simple things, the woman who spent a month in Guatemala on
a mission trip, returning sick and malnourished but with a sense of
satisfaction she'd never matched since. Hayes whispered in her ear.
"You've changed, darling."
"Haven't we all?"
The fire was mildly hypnotic. Hayes found himself in that state
between sleeping and waking, yet his thoughts remained lucid. Something
nagged at him, a riddle that all his scientific naturalism was useless
to explain. The answer could be laying right next to him, with the
woman who never lost faith in a spiritual world beyond science and
routinely challenged her husband to explain credible accounts of the
supernatural. Sylvia met his searching gaze.
"What is it, dear?" she asked groggily.
"I doubt we were much help to the President," Hayes confessed.
Sylvia merely squeezed his hand.
"I've never been much of a philosopher," Hayes began, "occupational
hazard I guess. You always had a better grasp of the... metaphysical."
She grinned. "Are you trying to ask my opinion?"
He nodded. "It's just... if we have souls, what are they made from?
Sylvia pondered this for a moment. "Pure spirit."
"That doesn't help. Do you mean some form of energy?"
"I don't know dear, but I doubt energy or matter or even time and
space figure into it," she replied. "It's above all that. I've always
believed there's a spiritual dimension beyond anything we can perceive
directly. It would be like a two-dimensional creature trying to
comprehend a skyscraper but only being able to see the outline of its
shadow. Our souls are a natural part of that other dimension, which by
the way, some would call Heaven."
"So our souls don't depend on our physical bodies? We'd still have a soul even if we... didn't have any atoms?"
"What? I suppose so. Harry, are you feeling okay?"
"Maybe just a touch of The Crazies"
Sylvia only smiled and kissed Harry on the cheek before rolling over
on the floor to a spot nearer the fire. Even though it was blazing
nicely, it didn't seem to be producing much heat.
Hayes also felt a slight chill. He looked around and realized it was
getting dark, but how did it get so late? He rose and slowly made his
way into the kitchen to check the time and look outside. "That's odd,"
he thought to himself, just past five-thirty. Not even twilight.
A more noticeable chill began spread across his neck and shoulders.
Walking back towards the family room, he paused by the little alcove
with a small desk they used for mail. Mounted on the wall was a gift
from Harry's uncle who once worked in a chemical plant. It was a large
stainless-steel industrial thermometer and Hayes gasped at it with
wide-eyed disbelief. It read minus one hundred and twenty five degrees
Fahrenheit, and was falling. That's when he knew.
Sylvia called to him. "Harry, I've got an awful chill. Could you do me a favor?"
Hayes was unable to take his eyes off the thermometer, but could barely see it as the room was quickly fading into darkness.
"Of course honey. I'll get you a blan-"
© 2016 Glenn M. Diamond
Bio: Mr. Diamond has a background in electrical engineeringand currently lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and daughter. His first published short story "The Cleansing" appeared in the Huffington Post. His last Aphelion appearance was The Best Friend in Greyworld in our December 2014 issue.
E-mail: Glenn M. Diamond
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