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1

The explosion, later categorized as in the near equivalent of 60 kilotons of TNT and centered on the University of Central Florida, occurred at 9:28 a.m. on a Saturday in early March, a calm spring day in Orlando when the sky was clear and the air was cool and, for Florida, reasonably dry. It occurred entirely without warning and while it originated at the university the effects were felt far outside its grounds.


The golfers at Fairways Country Club had only a moment to experience the bright flash and heat when the fireball engulfed them. The two young men on University Boulevard selling "top name brand stereos" that they "couldn't return or their boss would kill them" didn't even have that long. The fireball spread in every direction, a white ball of expanding plasma, crisping the numerous suburban communities that had spread out around the university, homes, families, dogs, children. The plasma wavefront created a tremendous shockwave of air that blasted like a tornado outwards, destroying everything in its path. The shockwave spread to the south as far as U.S. 50, where early morning shoppers were blinded and covered with flaming debris. It enveloped the speeders on the Greenway, tossing cars up to a half a mile in the clear air. It spread to the north almost to the town of Oviedo, erased the venerable community of Goldenrod, spread as far as Semoran Boulevard to the west and out to Lake Pickett to the east. The rumble of the detonation was felt as far away as Tampa, Cocoa and Ocala and the ascending mushroom cloud, roiling with purple and green light in the early morning air, was visible as far away as Miami. Flaming debris dropped into Park Avenue in Winter Park, setting the ancient oaks along that pleasant drive briefly ablaze and crushed the vestibule of St. Paul's Church.


Troopers in the motor pool of Charlie Company, Second Battalion, 53rd Brigade, Florida Army National Guard, who were pulling post deployment maintenance on their Humvee and Hemet trucks, looked up at the flash and cringed. Those that remembered their training dropped to the ground and put their arms over their heads. Others ran into the antiquated armory, seeking shelter in the steel cages that secured their gear when they were at their civilian jobs or, as seemed much more common these days, deployed to the Balkans or Ashkanistan or Iraq.


Specialist Bob Crichton was compiling loss lists in his cubicle when he noticed the rumble. The unit had returned only a week before from a year-long deployment in Iraq and everyone seemed to have "combat lossed" their protective masks. Unit protective garments were at less than thirty percent of proper inventory. It was stupid. Everybody knew that sooner or later the riffs were going to hit them with a WMD attack, chemical, radiological or even nuclear now that Pakistan was giving the Saudis, of all people, nukes. But nobody liked protective garments or masks and they "lost" them as fast as they could. Convoy ambush? Damn, the riffs must have grabbed my mask. Firefight? Where'd that protective garment go?


He looked up to where his diploma from the U.S. Army Chemical Corps Advanced Training Course hung and saw the glass shatter even before it fell off the wall. He blinked his eyes twice and then dove under the metal desk and clamped his hands over his ears, opening his mouth to equalize the pressure, just before the air-pressure shockwave hit. Even over the sound of the explosion, which seemed to envelope the whole world, he heard the sound of the big windows in the armory crashing to the floor of the parade hall. There was a sound of tearing metal, probably one of the old girders that held up the roof of the parade hall, then relative silence except for a distant screaming. He waited a moment, catching creaking from the old building but figuring it was as safe as it was going to get, then climbed out from under his desk and headed for the company commander's office.


The first sergeant and the operations sergeant were just pulling themselves out from under their own desks when Crichton burst through the door without knocking, normally a cardinal offense but he figured this was as good a time as any to ignore the directive.


"Nobody goes outside for at least thirty minutes, Top," he said, bouncing from one foot to the other in the doorway. "And I need my survey teams, that's Ramage, Guptill, Casey, Garcia and Lambert. And as soon as it's clear I need a platoon to start filling sandbags for the Humvees—"


"Slow down," the first sergeant said, sitting down in his chair and then standing up to brush crumbs from the drop ceiling off of it. The first sergeant was tall and lanky. Up until the last year he'd been the chief investigator for the Lake County Sheriff's Department. When they got deployed, ignoring the Soldiers and Sailors' Act, he'd given the sheriff his okay to appoint his deputy to the job. So when they got back he took a cut in pay and went back to work as a sergeant. Give him a crime scene and he knew where he was at. He even was pretty good at recovering the company from a mortar attack or a convoy ambush. He was one of the best guys in the world at training his troops to sniff out hidden explosives, weapons and other prohibited materials—he thought of it as shaking down a dealer's house. But nuclear attacks were a new one for him and it was taking him a minute to get his bearings.


"I can't slow down," Crichton replied. "I need to set up a radiological station before anybody can go outside even after the first thirty minutes."


"What's with the thirty minutes?" Staff Sergeant Wolf asked. The operations sergeant was medium height and well over what the Army considered acceptable weight for his height. And it wasn't muscle, like the CO's driver who was a fricking tank, it was fat. But he was pretty sharp. Not unflappable, he was clearly taking even more time to adjust than the first sergeant, but smart. When he wasn't in one third-world shit hole or another he was a manager of a Kinko's.


"Falling debris," Crichton asked. "We don't know it's a nuke. It probably was but it could have been an asteroid hit. They throw chunks of burning rock into the stratosphere and they take a while to come down."


"Top?" Crichton heard from behind him. The chemical specialist turned around and saw that the mortar platoon sergeant had come up behind him while he was talking. The platoon sergeant, a staff sergeant who was a delivery manager for UPS when he was home, showed a physique developed from years of throwing often quite heavy boxes through the air. It was running to fat now that he worked behind a desk ten months out of the year, but he still was a big guy you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.


"Get Crichton his survey teams," the first sergeant said, looking at the suddenly irrelevant papers on his desk. "Send Sergeant Burell around to get everybody inside until the all clear sounds. Then get with the rest of the platoon sergeants in the Swamp. Wolf, head over to battalion, see what's up."


"Where's the CO?" Crichton asked, looking at the closed door at the back of the room.


"At breakfast with the platoon leaders and the battalion commander," the first sergeant answered, dryly. "We can handle this until they get back. Go."


FLASH is the highest priority communication in the military directory, superceding even Operational Immediate. Satellites in orbit noted the explosion and computers on the ground automatically categorized it as a nuclear explosion.


"Holy shit!" the Air Force sergeant monitoring the nuclear attack warning console muttered, his stomach dropping. In the old days he would have picked up a phone. Now he hit three buttons and confirmed three separate pop-ups sending a FLASH priority message to the National Military Command Center in the bowels of the Pentagon. Then he picked up the phone as sirens went off in the normally quiet room in Sunnyvale, California.


The wonder of military communications and computers meant that the President of the United States got word that a probable nuclear attack had occurred on Central Florida a whole thirty seconds before Fox broke the news.


"I know we can't say who did it, yet," the President said calmly. He was at Camp David for the weekend but most of his senior staff was on the phone already. "But I'll make three guesses and only two of them count."


"Mr. President, let's not jump to conclusions," his national security advisor said. She was a specialist in nuclear strategy and had been doing makee-learnee on terrorism ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001. And this didn't fit the profile of a terrorist attack. "First of all, nobody thinks that they have access to nuclear weapons of this sort. Radiological bombs, maybe. But this appears to be a nuclear weapon. However, the target makes no sense for a terrorist. It has been located precisely as being on the grounds of the University of Central Florida. Why waste a nuclear weapon on a university when they could use it on New York or Washington or L.A. or Atlanta?"


"I gotta go with the NSA on this one, Mister President," the secretary of defense said. "This doesn't feel like an attack. What's the chance it could have been some sort of accident?"


"I don't know that much about UCF," the NSA admitted. She had once been the dean of a major college but for the last few years she'd been holding down the national security advisor's desk in the middle of a war. Her stated ambition after leaving government service was to become the commissioner of the National Football League. "But I don't think they're doing anything in the nuclear program, I'm pretty sure I'd remember that. And you just don't get accidents with weapons. They're hard enough to get to go off at all."


"So we're in a holding pattern?" the President asked.


"Yes, sir," the secretary of defense answered.


"We need to get a statement out, fast," the chief of staff said. "Especially if we're pretty sure it wasn't a terrorist attack."


"Have one made up," the President said. "I'm going to go take a nap. I figure this is gonna be a long one."


"Okay, Crichton, what do you have?"


The battalion headquarters of Second Battalion was collocated in the armory with Charlie Company. At the moment the Battalion, which should have had a staff sergeant and two specialists as a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons team, was without any of the three. Crichton had for the last year been the only trained NBC specialist in the entire battalion. He reflected, somewhat bitterly, that while he'd been holding down the work of a staff sergeant, a sergeant and six other privates it hadn't been reflected in a promotion.


"None of my instruments are reading any increase in background radiation here, sir," the specialist temporized. The meeting of the battalion staff and company commanders was taking place in the battalion meeting room, a small room with a large table and its walls lined with unit insignias, awards and trophies. The question hit him as he walked through the door. Crichton had been told only two minutes before to "shag your ass over to battalion and report to the sergeant major." At the time he'd been prepping his survey teams.


Radiological survey teams were taken from within standard companies and sent out to find where the radiation was from a nuclear attack. It was one of the many scenarios that the Army kept in its playbook but rarely paid much attention to. The privates and one sergeant for the company's team had been chosen months before and should have trained in the interim. But there were always more important things to do or train on, especially on a deployment. So he was having to brief them at the same time as he was trying to read all his instruments, prepare a NUCREP that was probably going to be read by the Joint Chiefs and make sense of the readings, none of which, in fact, made sense.


He knew all the officers in the room and, frankly, didn't like them very much. The battalion operations officer, a major, stayed on active duty as much as possible because his other job was as a school teacher, elementary level, and soccer coach. As a major he made three times as much as a civilian. He could run anybody in the battalion into the ground but the only reason he managed to keep his head above water in his present post was his S-3 sergeant, whose civilian job was operations manager for a large tool and die distributor. The battalion executive officer was a small town cop. Nice guy and, give him credit, in good shape despite the Twinkies but not the brightest brick in the load. How he made major was a huge question. The battalion commander was a good manager and a decent leader but if you asked him to "think outside the box" he'd get a box and stand outside of it while he thought. And there was nothing, so far, that fit in any box Crichton could imagine.


"The thing is, sir, this doesn't look like a nuke at all, Colonel," he admitted.


"Looked one hell of a lot like one where I was standing," the XO replied, his brow crinkling. "Big flash, mushroom cloud, hell of a bang. Nuke."


"No radiation and no EMP, sir," Crichton said, shaking his head.


"No EMP?" the battalion commander said. "Are you sure?"


"What . . ." the Charlie Company commander said, then shook his head. "I know I'm supposed to know this, damnit, but I don't. What in the hell is . . . what was it you said?"


"EMP, sir," Crichton replied. "Electromagnetic pulse. Basically, a nuke makes like a giant magnetic generator along with everything else." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. "I called my mom to tell her I was okay and not to worry. Didn't think about it . . ."


"That's okay," the battalion commander said. "Everybody did the same thing."


"Yes, sir," Crichton replied. "But I meant I didn't think about it until I hung up. Nuke that size, sir, the EMP should have shut down every electronic device in East Orlando. I mean everything that wasn't shielded. Phones, computers, cars. But everything works. Ergo, it was not a nuke."


"Look, Crichton, I got a call, a personal call, from the Chief of Staff," the battalion commander said. "I mean the Army Chief of Staff. There's a NEST team on the way to check this out, but he wants data now. What do I tell him?"


Crichton cringed at that. The Chief of Staff was going to tell whatever he said to somebody even higher up. Probably the President. If he got it wrong . . .


"Right now this . . . event is not consonant with a nuclear attack, sir," the specialist said, firmly. "There is no evidence of EMP or radiation. Nor . . ." He paused and then squared his shoulders. "Nor does it appear to be an asteroid strike."


"A what?" the operations officer asked.


"Look," Crichton said, thinking fast. "Sir, you ever see a movie called Armageddon? Or Asteroid?"


"That's science fiction, right?" the major scoffed. "I don't watch that sort of stuff."


"An asteroid probably wiped out the dinosaurs, sir," Crichton explained, trying not to sound as if he was speaking to a child. "It's not science fiction, it could happen at any time."


"But we'd get warning, right?" the XO asked. "There's some sort of a group that watches for that sort of thing. They thought one was headed this way a couple of years ago . . ."


"No, sir, we wouldn't," Crichton said, shaking his head. "Not unless we were extremely lucky. Spacewatch can only scan about ten percent of the sky. An asteroid can come in from anywhere. But, again, there's no evidence that it's an asteroid strike. Asteroids will pick up debris, lots of it and big debris when you get a fireball like this, described as this one was which was that it seemed to be at ground level. Chondritic meteors can do an airburst, that's probably what happened in Tunguska . . ."


"They teach this in NBC school?" the operations officer asked.


"No, sir, but there have been recognized impacts in the last ten years; this is real information," the chemical specialist said. "Do you want it?"


"Go ahead, Specialist," the battalion commander said. "But your point is that this doesn't appear to be a meteor."


"No, sir," he confirmed. "I've caught what I can from the news while I've been running around. There's a big ball of dust over the explosion site and news helicopters have been staying away from it for safety reasons. But they've noted that the damage path is damned near circular. Very unusual for a meteor."


"Why?" the XO asked.


The Specialist sighed. "Angles, sir."


"Sit, Crichton," the battalion commander said. "Then explain. This is all new to me, too."


"Thanks, sir," he replied, grabbing a chair, then holding his hands up like a ball. "This is the Earth, right? For the damage to be circular it would have to have come in straight." He pointed towards where he'd had his hand cupped, then pointed from the sides. "But a meteor can come in from any direction. It's much more likely that it will come in at an angle. And if it hits," he clapped his hands together and then fanned them out, "it's like throwing a rock into a mud puddle. Most of the mud splashes away from the rock. Some splashes straight up. Some, a little, splashes back. They think the one that took out the dinosaurs hit down in the Yucatan. 'Splashes' from it hit in Europe and up in the tundra. The plasma wave crossed most of North America. Say one came in from the west for this. First of all, we should have seen, have reported, some sort of air-track. 'A shooting star in the day.' Then, we should have had flaming bits of rock raining all the way from here to Cocoa."


"Which we didn't," the battalion commander said, nodding his head. "The Orange County Sheriff's department wants to send a helicopter into the area to assess the damage and find out what's going on. They have their own chemical and biological response person, but they want a military presence who knows something about nukes. All we've got for that is you. Will you volunteer for the mission?"


"Yes, sir," Crichton said, his eyes lighting.


"It could be dangerous," the commander pointed out.


"So was driving Highway One, sir," the specialist replied. "But I'd give my left arm to be on the first survey team. For us it's like being the first one through the door is for infantry. This is the mother of all doors for an NBC specialist."


"Okay," the battalion commander said, smiling. "I'll give them a call and then call the Chief of Staff."


* * *

"Well, that was the Army Chief of Staff," the defense secretary said. It was forty minutes from Washington to Camp David by UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Three had been dispatched and picked up the national security advisor, the director of homeland security, the defense secretary and the Chief of Staff. The Vice-President was aboard Air Force Two circling over the Midwest but in contact by speaker phone. "He's been talking to the local National Guard commander. His survey teams so far report no evidence of radiation and there was no EMP. He also says that it does not appear to be a meteor strike. I'm not sure about how high a certainty to put on that, he's apparently depending upon the opinions of a private and evaluation of meteor strike is not part of his training."


"The private agrees with FEMA," the national security advisor said. "And Space Command. The evidence is not consistent with a meteor impact and I'm suspicious of meteors that hit research facilities."


"So what was it?" the President asked. He had taken a twenty minute catnap and now paced up and down the room occasionally looking at the TV. "What's the estimate of casualties?"


"We don't have one so far," the director of Homeland Security said. Technically he should have given the FEMA report, since it was under Homeland Security. But he liked and respected the NSA so he didn't make an issue of it. He also was phlegmatic by nature, a man who never hurried in a crisis but stayed calm and made rapid, rational decisions. Many thought that he had been tapped by the President because he was the former governor of an important swing state but it was his unflappable manner that had gained him the post. "FEMA didn't want to give even a wide estimate but the lowball I extracted from them was fifty thousand."


"My God," the President whispered.


"Yes, sir, it is very bad," the director admitted. "But it's contained and local emergency services are responding as well as can be expected."


The phone rang and was answered by the national security advisor, who held it out to the President. "Your brother, sir."


"Hey, Jeb," the President said, calmly. "A black day."


"Yes."


"Okay, right away. Good luck and God Bless."


He handed the phone back and nodded at the Homeland Security director.


"That was an official request from the governor to declare a state of emergency. I think this counts."


"I'll tell my people," the director said, standing up and walking out of the room.


News helicopters that had been loitering near the dust-ball zoomed in on a white and green helicopter that bore the logo of the Orange County Sheriff's department as it approached the scene of devastation. An area could now be seen that was stripped clean of all vegetation and homes although some foundations remained. The helicopter came in slowly and hovered low, stirring up dust from the ground to add to the pall that was drifting lightly to the west.


"There goes the first survey," the defense secretary said, quietly. The National Military Command Center had already sent in its estimate of casualties. NMCC had programs and protocols dating back to the Cold War for estimating casualties. The estimate they had given him, backed by high end modeling that had taken a series of servers nearly fifteen minutes to run, said that the FEMA estimate was low.


By nearly an order of magnitude.


"We just picked up some dust," Crichton yelled, cracking the door on the helicopter and holding out the wand on his Geiger counter. "Hold it there."


"You sure this is safe?" the Emergency Services guy shouted, his voice muffled by his chemical suit and almost impossible to hear over the sound from the rotors.


"No," Crichton responded. "But you want to die in bed?"


The Emergency Services guy, Crichton hadn't caught his name, was used to responding to spills on I-4 in Orlando. He knew all about how to contain a dumped tanker truck of carbon fluoride. He even knew about containment and cleanup of a dumped load of radioactive material. But responding to a nuke was pretty much outside of his normal job description.


It was for Crichton, too. But he at least had manuals to go by. And he'd boned up, fast, as soon as he got detailed to the mission. He knew the sections on ground survey backwards and forwards but all he knew about aerial survey was from the books and they assumed that the helicopter had been fitted with external systems. No external systems were available so, leafing to the back of the manual, he'd found the section on "field expedient aerial survey." Which was much less detailed than the standard methods. Get close to the destroyed zone, staying upwind from the site, kick up some dust and get a reading. If it was hot, back the fuck up.


His counter was reading normal.


"This isn't a nuke," he muttered.


"What?" the pilot shouted. There were internal headsets but they wouldn't fit over his gear.


"It's clear!" he yelled back. "Go in closer."


"How close?"


"As close as you can get," Crichton said. "Or set it down and I'll walk!"


The chopper inched forward, slowly, as Crichton kept his wand out against the prop-wash. Still nothing.


"Set her down!" Crichton yelled. "We're still clear! I need a ground reading."


"You sure?"


"There is no radiation!"


"I've got the same," the Emergency Services guy said, looking over at Crichton. "This doesn't make sense!"


"No, shit," the specialist muttered.


"Wait," the copilot called back. He had been looking out to the front as the pilot searched for a reasonably flat place to land. "You can see something at the base of the dust cloud."


The base of the cloud was dark, obscuring the light from the sun that still hadn't reached zenith. But near the ground there was a deeper darkness. There was a crater as well, one that looked very much like an enormous bomb hole. The darkness, though, wasn't at the bottom of the crater. Then an errant gust of wind pushed some more of the dust aside and the darkness was revealed. It was a globe of inky blackness, darker than the spaces between stars on a cloudless night. It seemed to absorb the light around it. And it was hovering above the base of the crater, right about where ground level had previously been.


"It looks like a black hole," the copilot yelled. "Back away!"


"No!" Crichton yelled. "Look at the dust! If it was a black hole it would be pouring into it!" For that matter, he suspected that if there was a black hole that large the helicopter and most of Florida, if not the world, would be sucked into it faster than it could be seen. The dust wasn't being sucked in but he noticed that what dust went in didn't seem to be coming out.


"I'm calling the news service choppers and getting one in here for a visual," the pilot yelled. "You're sure there's no radiation."


Crichton glanced at the counter that had been forgotten in his hand and then shook his head. "Still quiet."


"Okay," the pilot yelled then switched frequencies and muttered on the radio. Crichton looked out the window and noticed one, and only one, helicopter inching closer; apparently the need to get a scoop did not outweigh common sense. He turned back to look at the ball, which didn't seem to be doing anything and shouted in surprise as something dropped out of the bottom and hit the base of the crater.


It was a giant insect.


No.


It was . . . It had black and red markings, mottled, not like a ladybug but some of the same color. It was . . . his sense of perspective zoomed in and out oddly. It couldn't be as large as it looked, but if it wasn't, then the pilot in the front seat was a child and his head the size of baseball. Crichton shook his head as the thing, using too many legs, wriggled and got to its feet. It was the shape of a roach, colored red and black and it had . . . more, way more, than six legs. It looked . . . wrong. Everything about it was wrong. It scared him more than any spider, however large and they got pretty damned large in Florida, he'd ever seen in his life.


It wasn't from this world. Not in this time. Or from any time in the past. And, hopefully, not any time in the future. It was from . . . somewhere else.


It was alien.


"Oh, Holy shit."


 


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