Chapter 50

Six Days, Fifty-Eight Minutes

** Somewhere in the Northern Alaska **

Pulling the binoculars up to his face, Trace Hightower squinted into the eyepiece and stared into the distance. Despite the magnification, the view was much the same: miles and miles and miles of unblemished white plains. Pristine snow blanketed much of the Alaskan frontier, and, aside from the formation of rocks up ahead, he realized how early pioneers – braving an unexplored frontier – must've felt.

"Damn lonely," he said aloud.

"What's that, sir?" the voice from behind carried over his shoulder.

"Nothing, Murphy."

It had been two days since they had left the outpost – an unmarked military installation believed by the American public to have long ago closed down in the scaling back of the military. However, Camp Zulu – as he had heard it referred to by his father-in-law on more than one occasion – didn't seem that far away. Marching for the better part of forty-eight hours into a desolate countryside can do that to anyone. It can play tricks on the mind. He almost believed, if he turned back now, he'd only walk for several hours before he saw signs – the chain link fence with the twirling blue lights – of the installation in the distance. A cold brush with reality – the bitter chill of wind on his face – woke him up, and Hightower reconsidered just how far his team had traveled.

His team.

Not that he had invited any of them along.

They didn't fit his idea of teammates.

Rather, he considered them anchors. Eavedroppers. Babysitters.

And he didn't need any babysitter ... not at the ripe age of thirty- two.

Still, he understood that these men – armed and dangerous – were a necessary evil. They had been a part of his life for two years, and, so long as he could imagine, they'd continue to be a part for some time to come. At least, he liked Murphy. The red-haired Irishman – slightly balding on top – had a healthy sense of humor that, every now and then, he let slip loose. Generally, it came out of hiding when the others – his counterparts, his squadron, or whatever they were called – weren't paying attention. Hightower picked on the joke, but, when he tried to join in, Murphy tightened up. He'd brush off the chuckles as quickly as he'd swat flies – and Hightower had seen the man swat some real insects in the heart of the Amazon.

Stowing the binoculars, he muttered, "Oh, well," and trudged onward through the snow, now almost up to his knees.

"What's that, sir?"

"Nothing, Murphy."

They walked onward across the flatland, the men kicked up the white stuff in their wake. The rocks up ahead would provide them with a safe haven from the wind – a resting spot – for a few moments. Hightower guessed they'd all be relieved the catch their breath and warm their hands sheltered mildly from the cool, but they'd never say. Few of them ever said anything. One or two of the men always offered cursory hellos, but, otherwise, they were trained to remain silent. It was part of the job, and Hightower assumed that's why he concentrated so much on the crunch, crunch, crunching of their feet on the snow to serve as a suitable replacement to conversation.

Grimacing, he saw a glimmer of what must have been sunlight flicker off the rocks, and, subconsciously, he quickened his pace against the snow. As he neared the mound, he realized that he was moving faster and faster. He felt the light kiss of sweat on his forehead, and he brought a gloved hand up to wipe it away. Glancing down, he noticed the fabric wet, much wetter than it should have been. Ignoring it, shaking off any meaning, he continued to walk faster – was he imagining it, or did the snow suddenly feel much lighter?

Looking down, he noticed that the white had taken on a decidedly murkier appearance, not as pale as the patches he had pounded through the last twelve hours. This snow was almost gray ... and it was moving?

"What the hell?"

He stopped where he was, and he felt Murphy bump up against his backside.

"What is it, sir?"

Hightower knelt down, extending his hand toward the sugary white.

To his surprise, it ... moved.

"Sir?"

"Murphy," he tried, "look at the ground."

Lifting his head, Hightower studied the landscape surrounding his team, and he felt pure shock at the sight of the fallen snow everywhere beginning to shift, to subtly slip and slosh amongst itself, to slowly begin to churn into streams of white molasses. Suddenly, he realized that he was dripping of sweat. Instinctively, he yanked off his glove and held it up in the air, his reddened knuckles also lined with moisture.

"Feel the air," he ordered. "It's ... I'll be damned if it isn't warming up."

Behind him, he heard Murphy go into action, unzipping the collar piece and pulling a microphone up to his mouth.

"Zulu One, Zulu One," he chanted intently into his mike. "This is Snake Eyes. Do you copy?"

From only a few feet away, Hightower heard the deafening crackle of static. Whirling, he watched as Murphy pulled his head away from the earpiece, which dropped out of his ear and dangled useless against his coat – a coat that he now tore open against the wave of heat washing over him, washing over all of them – and he opened his eyes wide.

"Move! Move!"

Before he could stop it from happening, Hightower felt the man's arms at his back, and, together, they were running across the plain, running where they had only once hoped to plod step after merciful step. The snow shifted all around them, morphing from a solid to puffs of gas to muddy water as the landscape lost all cohesion.

"Move, Hightower, move!"

Now, they were sprinting. The men – the team of agents at their back – felt a few steps behind, pulling their jet black Glocks out, taking defensive positions, ripping their coats open as the heat wave touched them. Everywhere he looked, Hightower saw steam, and geysers erupted viciously, spewing sloppy wet snow at them from every direction, as they rushed for their dear lives for the rocks. Through the mist, he saw them thirty feet away ... twenty feet away ... fifteen feet away ... ten feet away ...

"Dive!" Murphy screamed, pulling his own weapon out from under his thick jacket. "Dive!"

Together, almost simultaneously, they hit the nearest rock, and Murphy, scrambling with his free hand, pulled the other man close, tucking him under his shoulder, his chest, to keep him safe from whatever it was that was happening.

A piercing hum – the white noise of the universe itself – shook their eardrums. Where they lay, they literally vibrated on the rocks. The hum crescendoed, reaching a feverish pitch, and they looked up as the noise took form and swallowed the countryside they had just escaped. The snow. The men. Their weapons. The grounds. All of it blossomed into a cascade of a million colors – liquid roiling in an immeasurable blender – and they felt the rocks under them shiver. Rolling, arms now wrapped around one another, they cleared the spot ... and the stone, too, was sucked into the twirling, churning, violent mess that once was there but was now ... what?

Imploding?

Hightower clenched his teeth against the onslaught to his senses. He lay pressed to the ground, Murphy holding him there, and the two of them looked into the eye of a small hurricane.

"Sweet Jesus," Murphy whispered.

As quickly as the storm began, it subsided. The colors exploded, one hue swallowing another, as what was the quiet, uninhabited, unforgiving Alaskan frontier suddenly became itself again ...

... less the ground the two men had just left ...

... less the men who guarded their escape ...

... less everything they had just stepped on, over, and through.

Slowly, Hightower pushed off Murphy's weight, and he stood. Before him – where once the frozen tundra had offered him the challenge of a lifetime in a lifetime full of challenges – he studied a gaping hole in the ground. Water – melting snow – flowed easily over the lip of the crater, slipping and pouring down into the trench marred by blackened soil. He took a step forward, and he felt Murphy's hand on his arm.

"Don't."

Wincing at him, the man said, "I have to."

He stepped to the edge of the abyss.

Math never was Hightower's specialty, but, looking out and down into the crater, he guessed an entire acre of what was once Alaska was, simply, gone.

"What the hell happened?"

Ignoring the question, Murphy tugged the mike back up to his mouth.

"Zulu One, Zulu One," he tried. "This is Snake Eyes. I repeat: this is Snake Eyes. Do you copy?"

The hiss of static was gone. Instead, it was replaced with complete silence.

"Murphy, what the hell just happened?"

Hesitantly, the man stepped up to Hightower's side.

"Sir," he tried, searching for the right words, "your guess would be as good as mine."

Hightower sighed. The warm air was fading, and, to his surprise, the chill was returning quite rapidly. Watching as the slush of snow, soot, and water continued to spill into a hole he couldn't imagine how deep it stretched – two hundred feet? Four hundred? – he pulled his jacket close around his neck. The temperature was dropping quickly, and it was like they were right back where they started before 'whatever' it was had swallowed a mouthful of one of the fifty United States.

"It's almost as if ... it's almost as if none of it ever existed."

End of Chapter 50

... to be continued in PARALLELOGRAM: DAY TWO