Other-worldly? Check. Haunting? Check. An air of mystery? Double check. I cannot even describe to you the excitement that ran through me when my sis-in-law Valerie sent me this picture. It has all of the elements I love, and it’s a breeding ground for creative inspiration! There were so many different ways I could have gone with this one, and it was so hard to pick only one direction. This may be way to revealing about my nature, but the story I ended up coming up with is the kind I enjoy writing (and do I dare say reading?) the most. Ok, since all of this is just sounding like an excited jumble of meaningless words, I’ll go ahead and get to the story.
Here is ‘Epilogue to the Bombings’:
Iron and cement. As far as the eye could see. The usual scene. Nothing of use. Of course not. Anything useful had been snatched long ago. That was ok, though. They weren’t there to scavenge for supplies.
They passed skeleton building after skeleton building. Walls blasted out. Rubble being spit out like vomit. The fact that there was no stench in the air meant the area had probably been decimated toward the beginning of the bombings.
“How far in?” asked Brodie Stevens, feeling the antsy agitation he got during each mission. At 24-years-old, he was the youngest of the trio, and the newest member of the group that had already seen the horrible loss of two individuals. He didn’t want to be the third.
“Half a mile,” answered chemist Trina Tate as she studied the small screen strapped to her arm.
“One thousand yards.” Dominic Morris, sitting in the driver’s seat of the jeep, had a habit of turning all of their imperial statements into metric ones. A remnant of his extensive military career.
Silence followed as Dominic swerved around potholes and rubble on the road. A tricky task while also trying to make sure there was nothing nearby that would dole out death.
It had been five years since the bombs had gone off. Every country had been hit it seemed, but the U.S. got the worst of it. Two-hundred million Americans dead, just like that. A hundred and fifty million more scared, grieving, confused. No one knew who had set off the bombs. No one even knew what kind of bombs they were. Something that had never been seen before. Something that had not been expected. Something entirely unprepared for. Other bombs had gone off since then, but nothing like those first ones. Otherwise, they would have all been dead.
“There,” said Trina, pointing at one of the dilapidated buildings.
Dominic pulled onto a side street and stopped the jeep. They all then began the process of laying lighter pieces of rubble across it to give at least some camouflage.
“What are we looking for?” asked Brodie as they finished and moved onto the main street, stopping behind the cover of a cement slab to plan out their approach.
Dominic wiped the sweat from his forehead and pulled out his canteen. After a long swig from it, he cracked his neck side to side.
“Something big,” he finally answered. “Intel says it could be related to the bombs.”
“So,” Brodie said, “like, regular old bombs, or…”
“The big ones. Maybe. At least components of them.”
Brodie suddenly felt like he was going to throw up.
“Then we better get going,” said Trina. She threw her shoulders back and lifted her head a little higher, like the small actions would give her extra bravery or something.
Brodie tried it, too, just in case the woman was on to something. Nope.
He looked over at Dominic in time to see the older man giving him a little sneer.
“Shut up,” Brodie grumbled.
“I didn’t say a dang thing.” The group leader grabbed the M16 that had been resting across his chest and added the grenade launching attachment. “How many mags you two carrying?”
“Eight,” answered Trina.
“Eight,” Brodie seconded.
“Alright. Flashlights on. And keep away from that burst switch this time, Brodie, or I’ll shoot you myself.”
“We’ll go in the front entrance. Trina, you’re first. I’m second. Brodie, third.”
“Any idea what we should expect?” asked Trina.
“Nope, so be ready for engagement. Let’s go.”
The small team stacked outside the front entrance quickly and quietly, maintaining the order that Dominic had put them in. As they approached the door, Brodie felt his heart rate spike, even as he tried to maintain steady breathing. Going through the doors was always the worst. Dominic had said they were called fatal funnels, and for good reason. It was the point anyone inside would be focusing on, and it would make the three members of his own team incredibly vulnerable. The trick, or so he had been told, was to never stop. Always keep moving, even if being shot at. Easier said than done.
As she entered the building, Trina focused on the right corner and, when it was clear, she continued moving right, keeping the wall close behind her. Dominic followed close behind and moved left, while Brodie kept to the right with Trina as he moved in.
The air was quiet and calm. No people. No zipping bullets. Everything felt stale, too, like no one had been in the room for a while.
“You sure this is the right building,” Dominic asked.
Trina looked down at her screen again and nodded.
“This is the location we were given. The intel could be wrong, or it may be a fluke. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Dominic looked around the room again and said, “I don’t like it. Something feels off.” He shook his head. “Ok, let’s clear this floor, then we’ll find the stairs. See if they’re usable.”
Brodie kept his third person position as they entered each new room on the first floor. While there was still no one to be found, he had to admit that Dominic was right. Everything felt weird.
The stairs were at the end of the hall and passable. It was an open stairwell, so Trina secured upward as far as she could see while Brodie followed behind Dominic up the steps. They took turns clearing the high points until they got to the second floor.
“What’s that smell?” Brodie asked as they approached the second floor door. He lifted the neckline of his t-shirt over his nose to provide some protection against the odor.
Trina took a deep whiff and almost gagged.
“Ugh. Smells like a sewer,” she said.
“Stop whining and get moving.” Dominic motioned toward the door with his gun. “Where there are sewers, there are people.”
When they made it to the first room off the second floor hall, the door was locked.
“Be ready,” Dominic said, then he kicked below the door’s handle. With a second kick, the door flew open, and all three of them rushed in with guns raised.
“Hands on your head!” Trina yelled at the lone woman in the room.
The woman, dressed in clothes that looked to be from another era, was sitting at an old fashioned sewing machine. Floral patterned material flew under her hands as her foot moved the pedal near the floor back and forth. She didn’t even look up at the people who had barged into the stark, dimly lit room. It was almost as if she didn’t realize they were there at all.
“I said hands on your head,” Trina yelled again, still without a response.
“What the…” Brodie trailed off as he studied the woman.
Her face was pale, bones sticking up through the skin, black circles under her eyes.
Dominic moved cautiously toward her and stopped when he was right behind her. Only then did her foot still, the fabric pausing in its race through her hands.
Slowly, the woman turned to him, her face clouding with anger.
“No,” she said, voice low, tone scary. “Don’t stand there.”
Brodie felt a shiver run up his spine. He had gotten that feeling once before. Eight years ago when he had gone through a haunted woods with his brother.
“Why?” Dominic asked.
“I cannot work with you watching me.”
“Move!” she screamed. “Go away!”
She did not stand or attack, but her nostrils flared, and her hands, shaking badly, were balling into fists.
“What are you making?” Dominic tried again to get something out of her.
“Get out!” This time she stood.
“It’s a dress,” Trina said, moving toward the machine. She picked up two tubes of fabric that were sitting on the floor. “These are the sleeves. She’s working on the skirt right now.”
“Is it… Is it pretty?” the woman asked, some of the anger dying from her eyes.
“Very pretty. I would happily wear something like this. Who are you making it for?”
“All of them. It’s not good yet, though. Not until it’s red.”
“Yes. The ladies want red. Lots of red. This dress needs to be red. It will be. Not yet, but soon.”
The woman sat back down, and her foot began to move on the pedal again.
“She’s crazy,” muttered Dominic.
“What do we do about her?” asked Brodie.
“For now, leave her there. You stand outside the door and make sure she stays there. Trina and I will check the next room down.”
Brodie watched from his position as his teammates kicked in the next door and ran in. All was quiet from the room. His curiosity was growing. With a quick check into the first room to make sure the woman was still working, he made his way to the second.
“I thought I told you to stay put,” Dominic said when he saw Brodie in the doorway.
“She’s not doing anything. She has no weapon.”
Brodie’s eyes fell to the woman who was sitting at an identical sewing machine to the one in the first room. She was dressed in the same kind of clothes and had the same haunted look about her. As with the first woman, she did not acknowledge their presence.
“Seriously,” Brodie said, “what the heck is going on?”
Trina kneeled next to the machine and asked the woman, “Are you making a dress, too?”
The woman looked over at her, then cast her eyes down. Slowly, her head moved up and down as her shaking hands pushed the fabric under the rapidly bouncing needle.
“For the ladies?”
“I like this color. Blue is my favorite.” Trina fingered some of the loose material that was billowing to the side of the machine.
“Not blue,” the woman said, her voice hoarse like she hadn’t used it in years. “Red. It has to be red.”
“The ladies like red.”
With a frustrated exhale of breath, Dominic broke all of his usually tightly adhered to protocol and marched across the hall to the next room. Brodie followed him and watched as his leader broke in the door.
The woman in the third room was at a sewing machine, but she wasn’t working. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, her eyes on her lap.
“Are you ok?” Dominic asked her without getting a response. The big man walked up and tapped her on the shoulder, then moved quickly back. “Hey, you ok?”
The woman remained upright a moment longer, then she fell sideways out of the chair, her body hitting the cement floor with a thud that reverberated around the room.
“Is she dead?” Brodie asked shakily when the woman didn’t move.
Dominic felt for her carotid artery and shook his head.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I have no idea.”
Trina walked in, shaking her head.
“They’re out of their minds,” she said.
“What would cause this?” asked Dominic.
“I don’t know. The only thing I smell is coming from those waste buckets in each room. No chemical smells. Even if there were odorless chemicals in the air, they’d be affecting us by now.”
The next three rooms they entered had the women at the sewing machines, working busily. None of them were aware of their visitors until they were spoken to. When they were addressed, all three became timid, refusing to make eye contact with their visitors. All of them also made some comment about ladies wanting red dresses.
In the seventh room, the scene was a little bit different. Instead of sitting at her machine, the woman inside was staring out the window. Or at least attempting to. The panes, amazingly still intact, were frosted, allowing light to come through, but not clear enough to see out of. Her entire body shook as she stood there.
Trina slowly approached the woman and asked, “What are you looking at?”
“The ladies,” was the woman’s quiet response. “The ladies are coming.”
“What do the ladies look like?”
“They are wearing red.”
“All of them?”
“Yes. Red dresses and the masks.”
“Masks?” Trina was still a moment, then pulled her backpack off and grabbed her gas mask out. “Like this one?” she asked, holding it up.
The woman turned her eyes away from the window long enough to look at it and nodded.
“Red dresses and masks?” Dominic sounded stumped. “I’ve never heard of such.”
“They are so pretty, aren’t they?” said the woman, her eyes back on the frosted panes.
“Very pretty,” Trina answered quietly, patting the woman’s shaking shoulder.
In the last room on the hall, the woman had removed the needle from her sewing machine and was digging it into her wrist as she dragged the tip back and forth over her skin. Blood was bubbling up from the wound, running down her hand and off her fingers, and pooling on the floor along her feet.
“What are you doing?” Dominic demanded as he stepped forward and yanked the hand gripping the needle away from the other wrist.
“Death,” she said.
“You want to die?”
Her shaking shoulders lifted in a small shrug.
“Erethism,” Trina said. “It’s erethism mercurialis.”
“Erethism?” Dominic dropped the woman’s hand and turned to Trina. “What’s that?”
“A neurological disorder. Sometimes called mad hatter disease. Caused by mercury poisoning.”
“Erethism affects the central nervous system, hence the shakes in all of these women. Also causes delirium, social disorders, hallucinations, and,” she pointed at the woman who had gone back to slow death by needle, “suicidal tendencies.”
“But there’s no mercury here.”
“Not in these rooms right now. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in the building. That it’s not in the rooms sometimes. We need to find the red dye that they’re talking about. I have a feeling that’s where we’re going to find most of our answers.”
The red dye in question was found on the third floor of the building. The entire floor was one big, open area filled with dozens of vats of thick, red liquid. Around each vat there were two to three women, dipping the newly sown dresses into the dye. All of them had the same shaky limbs, dull eyes, and distant expressions that the seamstresses had.
Trina pulled a testing kit out from her backpack and scooped some of the dye out with a small, glass tube. The women working the vat barely gave her a glance as she did so.
“Woah,” she said as she studied the screen giving the readings from a metal stick that had been inserted into the dye.
“That didn’t sound like a good woah,” said Brodie.
“It is mercury. At least part of it. The rest…” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen this kind of chemical composition.” She looked to Dominic. “I think it’s a ballotechnic.”
“Come on now,” Dominic said, looking incredulous. “That’s the stuff of nuclear fairytales. Red mercury doesn’t actually exist.”
“I think it does. I think we just found some of it. And by some, I mean a heck of a lot.”
“What’s this ballo stuff you’re talking about?” Brodie asked. “Sounds bad.”
“Ballotechnic. Materials that undergo extreme reactions under pressure. More specifically, in the case of red mercury, a substance that radically simplifies the production of nuclear explosives. It would allow nuclear bombs to be made into much smaller packages. We’re talking a device that would that fit into a backpack.”
“Red mercury was said to be a myth created by the Soviets back in the 1980s,” said Dominic. “A piece of propaganda to intimidate.”
“Yes, but Samuel Cohen said it was real, and that the government was trying to hide evidence of its existence so no one would freak out about it.”
“Who’s Samuel Cohen?” asked Brodie.
Trina and Dominic looked at him like he was an idiot.
“Samuel Cohen. The father of the neutron bomb,” said Trina.
“Of course,” muttered Brodie. “What was I thinking?”
“Dominic, if this is red mercury,” she looked out over the vats, “there’s easily enough here to destroy the entire earth multiple times over.”
“So the dresses are—“
“Being used to get it out. With all the roadblocks and checkpoints up heading south, this is a pretty genius way to get the mercury out. Use it as a dye, wear it across the points, and then extract it at a weapons plant.”
“The people wearing it would go crazy too, though, right?” said Brodie.
“My guess is that they’re wearing something underneath as protection against skin absorption. That one woman already told us about the masks, too. They probably wear them until a checkpoint and take them off just long enough to get across.”
“We’ve got to get some of this back to base,” said Dominic, “where it can be properly analyzed and a plan drawn up.”
Trina pulled out three more glass tubes and filled them from the vat, then placed them in the bulletproof case she always kept in her backpack.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Right as they turned to make their way to the stairs, a single shot rang out across the open room, and Dominic dropped to the ground beside them.
“No!” Trina screamed as she knelt next to the man. She turned over his body.
Dominic’s eyes were wide with surprise, as if his last thought before death was disbelief that someone had finally managed to bring him down. Blood was beginning to seep out from the fatal wound in his chest.
“No!” Trina cried again.
Brodie grabbed Dominic’s gun, then Trina’s arm and, and pulled her up, fighting back a wave of grief.
“We have to go!” he told her. “Stay low.”
With a sob, Trina followed after him, and they made their way on hands and knees to the stairwell. When the big, metal door was closed behind them, Brodie stopped long enough to take a look through the narrow, glass window. From across the room, a wave of figures dressed in red dresses, their faces cloaked by masks, were streaming out of a far room and toward the stairwell door.
“Go!” Brodie pushed Trina toward the steps. “They’re coming!”
As they raced down the steps, new shouts could be heard from below as well as above.
“They’re coming up from the first floor!” Trina breathed out in fear.
“This way.” Brodie opened the second floor door, and they both pushed through it. “Head for the stairwell at the other end.”
When they were almost to it, the far end stairwell door flew open and red-clad figures came through, firing shots as they did.
Brodie lifted Dominic’s gun and fired off the one grenade that was in it. A deafening explosion filled the hall as debris went flying, filling the air with dust.
“Come on!” Brodie grabbed Trina again and pushed her through the doorway of the closest room. He slammed the door behind them.
They had reached the room with the woman who stared out the window. The window that was impossible to see out of.
“Brodie.” Trina’s voice was small. Scared.
When Brodie turned to her, he saw the stain beginning to spread from under her right ribcage.
“Brodie,” she said again, and then she fell to the floor.
Brodie ran up and dropped to the ground next to Trina, pressing his hand against her torso where blood was spurting out.
“Stay with me, Trina!” he said frantically. “I’ll get you out of here!”
She tried to speak, but only garbled sounds come out of her mouth along with a trickle of blood.
Brodie pulled his hands away from her long enough to yank a piece of gauze from the medical pack in his bag, trying not to panic at how much blood was pouring out of her. He placed the entire roll of gauze over the wound and pressed against it.
“Go,” Trina managed to whisper out.
“I’m not leaving you!”
As thick as the role of gauze had been, it was already soaked through. Useless.
“We’ll save everyone together, ok? I’m just the new guy. I don’t know anything. You’re Trina Tate. Chemist extraordinaire. So you have to make it!”
“Take…it.” Her eyes glanced down to her bag. “Take…”
With a last gurgling breath, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, and her body went completely limp.
“Trina!” Brodie shook her body, panic overcoming him.
There were shouts from the hallway, then the sounds of doors being kicked as the rooms were searched. There wasn’t much time left.
Near hyperventilation, Brodie grabbed Trina’s backpack and looked frantically around the room. He zeroed in on the woman at the window. Her eyes had turned from the frosted panes to rest on Trina’s still form.
“Death,” she said quietly. She looked up at Brodie. “Death will find you here.”
“Where can I go, then?” Brodie demanded.
With a knowing look, she turned again to the window.
“Out there?” he asked.
“We’re on the second story,” he said, “and I don’t know what’s out there waiting for me.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t see out that glass.”
“Come.” She motioned him over. “See.” She pointed to the glass.
As Brodie leaned closer to the window, he saw that there was a small hole in the glass. A hole just large enough for him to see out to the street below.
“The ladies in red. You saw them earlier. You were telling us you saw them.”
“Beautiful red dresses,” she said.
“Right. Beautiful dresses.”
“The dresses are coming.” She looked to the door.
Brodie only had two choices. He could stay and fight. Aim his M16 at the door and try to mow down whoever came in. But he’d only last so long. He’d then die, and the red mercury would never get back to base. The whole world could be destroyed. Or he could go out that window. Go out and hope he didn’t kill himself on the way down.
“Stand back,” he told the woman. When she complied, he shot at the window and watched as the glass shattered. The noise caused a new commotion out in the hall as his pursuers realized where he was.
Swinging Trina’s bag onto his back and holding the gun tight against his chest, Brodie studied the drop to the ground for about three seconds. Then, not giving himself any more time to consider, he put his own backpack across the ledge to protect against the glass pieces, climbed on top of it, and threw himself to the street below.
He rolled as he landed, but the impact had still been hard enough that he thought he might have broken his foot. Jumping up, he tested his weight and found the injured limb would hold him, at least for the time being. He began a hobbling run down the street.
As he was about to turn down the side street that would take him to his team’s hidden jeep, he looked back once at the window he had jumped from, just in time to see the woman jab one of the shattered glass pieces into her own chest. Her body fell forward and out the window to the ground below.
Swallowing back nausea, knowing he didn’t have much time, Brodie limped his way to the jeep, threw off the rubble they had used to disguise it, and brought it to life. He tucked the backpack containing the red mercury under his arm and gunned it out of the town.
The women in red would follow. They’d figure out which direction he went and come after him. The base camp was four hours away, but at least he knew the area well. He’d make it. He had to make it, because if he didn’t, there was a good chance his country, if not humanity itself, would be wiped from the face of the earth.