October 2012

Harry desperately examined the newspaper he’d found in the old china hutch, looking for obvious signs of forgery. Misspellings, ribald jokes, anything. But no, at least as a far as a surface examination was concerned, it looked authentic. The paper had even attained a patina of age, the sort only seen after exposure to the air for months or years.

“Daddy, why are you messing with that dirty old paper?” Madelaine looked up from her frosted flakes.

“Well, I-”

“There’s a new one on the porch, you know,” his daughter said with a five-year-old’s self-assurance.

“I’m…I’m looking at it to see if I can remember what happened way back then,” Harry said. “You know, ’cause I’m old.”

Madelaine nodded. “Yeah, old people are like that sometimes.” She finished the bowl and stood on tiptoes to get it into the sink before wandering into the TV room.

Harry watched her go with a mixture of pride and fear before turning back to the newspaper, which claimed to be an issue of the Sunday Cascadia Post, Tecumseh County Edition. It was dated June 17, 2018: 5 years, 7 months, and 12 days from the date on Harry’s day calendar.

In between mundane articles on the midterm elections and a Deerton millage for a new high school, there was a half-page spread on A2 entitled “One Year Later: A Search for Answers in the Ockham Murder.” The article glossed over events that its readers were presumably familiar with: while the Deerton police had been distracted by a fire on the other side of town, someone had kidnapped and murdered a victim in the old abandoned Petersen barn off US 313.

The picture accompanying the article showed the barn festooned with flowers, teddy bears, and banners of support. The largest banner covered nearly a quarter of the barn’s side and bore the logo of the Deerton Rotary Club.

It read, simply, Madelaine Ockham, beloved daughter, 4/12/07-6/18/17.

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To save on the cost of raking and bagging the leaves that fell every autumn, Southern Michigan University policy was to have the groundskeepers mow over the leaves in place, mulching them into a fine dust that would naturally fertilize the grounds. It was touted as a cheap and green solution to the problem, the hydrocarbon-spewing leafblowers and mulchers aside.

Then, ten years after the policy was enacted, SMU found itself in the crosshairs of a class-action suit.

Attorneys representing the groundskeepers claimed that the fine particulate generated during the annual fall leaf mulch had given their clients “leaf lung.” Characterized by shortness of breath, chlorophyll poisoning, halitosis, winter lethargy, and PTSD, “leaf lung” was said to have cost the groundskeepers any chance of earning a livelihood in the future. Their attorneys asked for a million-dollar settlement for each victim.

Horrified at the prospect of bad PR, SMU paid immediately and resumed the old practice of bagging leaves to be hauled away and become someone else’s problem. The doctor’s reports came in one week after the settlement checks cleared: there had been no sign of anything harmful in the groundskeepers’ lungs, and the physicians at the University Hospital cheekily prescribed facemasks and goggles for the condition, including a pair (total cost: $2) with the report.

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If you are to know anything about me, know this. I am nothing but a mechanism for turning heartache into sarcasm.

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Taera walked among the delegates, but she was not of them. In spite of the form she assumed there was no mistaking her for a mundane thing of dust and clay. There were waterfalls in her eyes, soft plains of waving grass in her hair, and the shifting expanse of desert sands played impossibly across her skin.

Even the delegates who has seen her before were visibly enraptured as if they were first beholding a world wrapped into a quasi-mortal guise. Some could be heard muttering wonderingly to themselves under their breath; from the audible snatches it was clear that each saw Taera differently–as they wanted to see her.

When she reached the dais, Taera turned and spoke in a voice that was both sea-breeze and premonition of storm. “We are pleased,” she said. “Pleased at the steps that have been taken and the progress that has been made.”

The rapturous applause that followed was indicative of how her praise cut to the quick of even the most hardened delegate’s soul.

“Under our guidance, you have done much to roll back the ongoing rape of the natural order,” Taera continued. “We spoke to you once of a gun at the temple of the world. You have removed the finger from its trigger.”

Pandemonium among the delegates. Even the most hardened, grizzled veterans of the cause, men and women who had torched dealerships and sunk whaleboats, responded as enthusiastic children.

“However.” That one word brought an unsteadiness to the acclamation. “The gun still remains, pressed to the very center of the world’s being. Eventually another hand will rise up to grasp it.”

Silence. The last cheers faded and there was no sound until Weatherby cleared his throat. “What would you have us do?” he asked.

“The immediate threat has been averted, but so long as hands exist to strike flint to rock, the danger remains. The cancer must not simply remiss; it must be cut from the body.”

Murmurs of unease. “I don’t understand,” Weatherby said, voicing the sentiment of all the delegates present.

“You ask us what we would have of you,” Taera said. “We can answer only in one regretful but necessary word. Extinction.”

Taera’s eyes flashed, burning with the molten force of a pyroclastic flow as the storm suggested in her tone of voice broke with shattering force. Weatherby didn’t have time to utter a sound before he was struck by blinding green lightning issuing from the center of the emissary’s being. He instantly crumbled to fine ash.

The other delegates, panicked, began to flee. But the green lightning arced from one to another, vaporizing each before each could move more than a step. Only a handful near the outermost periphery escaped the room with their lives.

“Flight will avail you not,” Taera boomed. “In your destruction lies the world’s salvation.”

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Melody couldn’t see the projector, but its holographic interface at least was a sign that she was nearing her destination. The grueling trip through Watcher’s Woods had taken hours of time and every last pathfinders’ trick in the book.

“The natives weren’t kidding when they said it was impossible to navigate Watcher’s Woods.” Melody said, ruefully fingering the torn fabric from the thorn-choked mud that had claimed her right sleeve and left boot.

“It represents a defense in depth,” the holographic cube replied in an even voice. “Obscurity, covert security, and now overt security. Present the proper identification code and passphrase and you will be allowed to access the memory core.”

Still trying to puzzle out the source of the holographic emitter, Melody nodded absently. “Sure. I think I can puzzle it out.”

“It is only fair to warn you that an incorrect answer will result in immediate termination,” the hologram said. “Withdrawal is likewise contraindicated due to the risk of an obscurity breach.”

That was enough for a little flop-sweat. “The ID code is 201983322,” Melody said in the most confident voice she could muster.

“Code accepted. Awaiting passphrase.”

There’d been nothing about a passphrase, only that damned…of course. “Deep grows the Watcher’s Wood/Where all are ground to dust/Take up the cause of blood/And leave not the sword to rust.”

Anxious perspiration prickled over Melody’s skin as she waited for a response from the holographic cube. There was none; it remained there, floating and flickering inscrutably.

Instead, the tiny clearing came alive.

Branches, vines, and trunks twisted themselves out of naturalistic positions into macabre tendrils, as the ground parted, liquidlike, to allow massive roots to do the same. Melody barely had time to flinch before the madness of the living forest enveloped her; she was covered in vines and protrusions of every sort and lifted bodily off the ground.

She realized that she was screaming only after a few long moments of confusion. But instead of the expected squeezing and twisting of a death roll, she felt a prickle of electricity across every inch of herself. As the roots enveloped her head, pictures began to explode into her waking consciousness, ebbing and flowing with the electrical current that set every hair on her body abuzz.

“My God…” Melody whispered. “The Watcher’s Woods don’t conceal the AI mainframe…they are the mainframe.”

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It sounds like something out of a George Romero movie, but it happened: in late 2009, the small rural Michigan town of Stanley was the epicenter of an outbreak of mania. Residents reported periods of intense euphoria, nervousness, and increased energy.

One group worked a spontaneous double shift at a tool and die factory. A mechanic reported employees breaking and bending tools during highly energized repair sessions. And, perhaps most tellingly, the community outreach center bathroom (long a source of cheap and discrete contraceptives) ran out, and then was vandalized by assailants wielding pipe wrenches.

The police and city government, while suffering from the effects themselves (patrol car rotations were briefly increased to 24 hours), nevertheless sought out a cause. Older residents were complaining of heart problems, after all, and the local hospital was overwhelmed with cases of exhaustion. Stanley authorities put out an appeal to the state government for assistance, but investigative teams were as clueless as anyone else.

An answer came, oddly enough, from the Michigan Bureau of Atmospheric Pollution Research. They had been measuring pollution levels in Detroit and elsewhere with equipment sensitive to the parts-per-billion level, and a mobile lab quickly noted that an unknown substance was present in the Stanley air in concentrations high enough to affect long-term residents through accumulation. It took another round of tests before the identity of the agent could be determined.

It was methyl alpha-methyl phenyl ethyl amine, better known as methamphetamine.

A former resident had once described the countryside around Stanley as “lit by the glow of exploding meth labs.” It turns out the claims were not hyperbole; the MBAPR, tracing the airborne particulate to its source, found a number of sites neat the city limits where destroyed or poorly constructed meth labs were smouldering. Each was putting out smoke laced with the drug; the incidents had gone unnoticed by a fire department obsessed with cleaning its engines three times a day.

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Message on a sun-faded brochure in an abandoned and partly caved-in resort hotel:

“Sunsets so unbelievably beautiful you’ll swear you can see brushstrokes.”

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