There is a problem though. The only way to get to that frontier is through an "Exchange", when a piece (several square miles) of the alternate reality temporarily swaps places with a piece of ours at a seemingly random time and place.
Coming exchanges can be detected three hours before they happen. If you're in the exchanged area, your town or city or piece of highway is suddenly on the frontier, a few miles or a few yards or even a few inches from a land where sabertooths, giant bears and even more dangerous creatures still roam.
does our risk-averse society react to a new frontier? Sharon Mack wants
no part of frontiers or new lives, but when her anarchist
takes their seven years old daughter into the alternate reality she has
no choice but to follow.
prelude to the
Exchange announced itself with a gust of ionized air, a shift of
charges that made Sharon Mack’s skin tingle. .
Two minutes early by
Marines, rifles at the ready, patrolled the inside edge of the EZ. Illinois State Police had jurisdiction outside; tan-clad officers watched over a work group digging up a natural gas pipeline to seal the end. A stream of trucks carrying workers, equipment, and additional Marines rumbled along the four-lane highway into the EZ.
the opposite direction, bumper-to-bumper traffic jammed the
The sky rumbled. As she watched, state troopers stopped the flow of cars.
Someone behind her said, “Any minute now.”
The troopers ushered cars and civilian workers out of the interface zone.
A Marine shouted, “Look out!”
oversized, iridescent-blue pickup truck pulled out of the stalled
raced on the shoulder of the highway, making a desperate run. A state
car moved to cut it off, but the truck slewed over the shoulder
of dirt and grass flying—roared toward the EZ. It turned toward
The truck rolled over an abandoned rake. A front tire exploded. The driver fought the steering wheel. The truck, out of control, careened toward the EZ.
Outside the EZ, the strip mall had disappeared—replaced by a low hill covered with prairie grass and patchy clumps of trees. The cab of the pickup truck was gone. Momentum kept the amputated truck bed going—its front edge plowed thick grass and dirt. It crashed into a tree and flipped, dumping passengers into the brush.
much happened at once for
“Weren’t for you, we woulda’ made it.”
“What?” she said.
One of the other guys from the truck yelled, “It’s a bear!”
A Marine Humvee raced toward the bear with lights flashing and horn blaring. The massive animal stood on its hind legs and roared. The men from the wrecked truck staggered to their feet and circled, moving slowly, trying to get behind the Humvee without drawing the bear’s attention. Several limped; two dragged the dead weight of an unconscious man.
With arrogant swagger, the bear approached. Running toward the scene, three Marines fired their weapons, startling the bear. It stopped, glared down at the humans, and snorted—before turning and ambling away.
And that’s why they call it Bear Country.
She stood for a moment, catching her breath and enjoying the cool breeze. That earned a glare from a barrel-shaped, female Marine standing guard beside her. Palmer, her name patch said.
“Best stand back in case one of the sparkies drops a wrench or something, ma’am,” Palmer said, gesturing at the workers descending from the suspension tower. The polite words had the tone of an order.
a computer jockey, not a construction worker,”
Time. Not near enough.
She glanced back at the Marine.
“Could you handle that bear if it kept coming?”
Palmer grunted. “It moves, I shoot it.”
if it keeps coming? It would take a cannon to kill one of those things.
what if we’re attacked by some other ice-age animal on steroids?”
nothing. “And that’s not all of it,”
Gunshots. A hundred yards away.
survey crew gawked in the direction of the shots. Raindrops splattered
pavement and grass. Wind stirred the trees. Three helicopters, painted
green and brown camouflage, arced low.
A lumbering cargo helicopter, engine screaming, swooped in and landed close enough that she felt the downwash from the rotors. Men and women in camouflage uniforms swarmed it—unloading bundles of twelve-foot fence posts and barbed wire.
you ever think you’d be standing twenty feet from another world?”
Palmer looked bored.
already knew that? Maybe you don’t care...”
Palmer grunted. “If that’s the worst screw-up we run into, I won’t complain. Those guys in the truck? Friends of yours?”
“No. Never seen them before.”
“You know they’re AKs?”
“Aryan Kings? The street gang?”
“That’s what the tattoos said. And more are coming.”
bright blue pickup identical to the amputated one pulled up. The
wearing a radio earpiece, sharp chinos, a form-fitting black T, and
sunglasses got out. He towered over
“Getting a good look at you. There are a hundred cops around. There won’t always be.” He took out a cell phone and clicked her picture. “Our brothers would have made it if you weren’t in the way.”
“Are you just going to stand there?”
Palmer pointed her rifle. “Shut up and hit the dirt.”
Palmer yelled, “Down! Flat! You’re in my line of fire!”
monkey lunged before
monkey at the rear of the pack skidded to a stop, then darted back and
the Marine’s rifle.
“That’s enough, ma’am. We’ll take it from here.”
“Did any get past?”
The blonde pulled out a radio.
“Monkeys in sector three. Get choppers and trackers over here ASAP.” She put the radio away. “Marine butt will fry over this. They had three hours to set up a perimeter, but the fence is still in pieces. So much for operational readiness.”
“Yeah. Broke my nose, but I’ll be fine.”
Lady Marines are tough.
The blonde strolled over and lifted Palmer’s hand.
“Get that cleaned up and bandaged, Marine. Make sure you tell the medic you got up close and personal with an LGM.”
Palmer touched her nose gingerly with her bloody fingers.
“Are you in her chain of command?”
“I am her chain of command,” the woman said.
The AK got up. “Where’s my cell phone?”
“You screwed with us. Don’t think this is over.”
The blonde grimaced. “Whatever it was, yeah, it’s over. You’ll spend the next two weeks piloting a shovel.” She gestured at Marines surrounding the truck and pointed to the gang members. “Get these bangers doing something useful.”
the Marines escorted the men away, the blonde turned to
“Someone you know?”
“Never seen them before today. I didn’t do anything to them. Why’d they come after me like that?”
“Because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take some free advice—steer clear of them. You handled the LGM pretty well. Martial arts?”
“Little Green Monkey. Jump on a truck and get to the shelter before curfew.”
“I want to make sure my daughter got out.”
“How old is she?”
“Seven, but she’s...”
“She has issues. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Okay. Special needs or not, if she’s seven they weren’t supposed to draft you. Is there anyone you can call? Husband? Boyfriend? Family?”
“Ex-husband—restraining order. The sitter was supposed to gather my daughter’s things and get her out. The soldiers wouldn’t listen. They gave me a choice of work crew or bullet.”
woman shrugged. “They screwed up. Sorry. They were in a hurry. Okay,
done your part. We have enough warm bodies.” She handed
The wind tossed Sharon’s hair. She brushed it back from her eyes and strolled over to a burly man in a tan, brown and gray Marine combat utility uniform. He looked up from his clipboard and she showed him the card.
The sergeant glanced at it.
“Get-out-of-jail-free card? Good for you. Ground rules: Stay in Rockport. Stay away from the EZ. You have an hour until curfew. Go home. Lock your doors. Close the shutters if you have them. Stay there. If you’re caught driving after curfew your vehicle will be confiscated. Cell phones will work as long as the cell tower batteries hold up—a few days at most. Don’t waste power trying to call the old world. It’s not there. You can’t recharge your phone, so emergencies only. Beyond generators running key facilities, there is no electricity. You may or may not have running water. Avoid the Bear Country animals. Even the small ones have teeth, claws, and sometimes venom.”
Sharon tried not to think about Bethany—hiding her impatience as the sergeant went through his list. Come on! Come on! I have a daughter to check on!
Finally, he said, “Exchanges average two weeks. We’ll have emergency medical care, food, and water at city hall, the hospital, and the high school. Use your food and drink at home first. Questions?”
“Any medical problems I should know about?”
“Three hours before the Exchange ends we’ll know it’s coming. You’ll hear a pulsed siren. When you hear that siren, report to the high school for evacuation into quarantine facilities. Make sure you have your important papers with you. Got it?”
The sergeant handed her a printed list of the rules.
“One hour. When you hear the sirens, that’s curfew. The patrols won’t mess around. If you’re out, you’ll be shot. Beat it.”
Workers piled onto flatbed
house is on
The driver handed the card back.
“These cards are hard to come by. You know Anna Morgan?”
“Who’s Anna Morgan?”
The driver studied Sharon’s face for a moment.
“I’ll drop you. Jump in back.”
The truck bed was already crowded, but a young man wearing a NASCAR cap helped her up. Two marines stretched a chain to hold them in. A tap on the truck’s side told the driver they were ready. The vehicle started with a gassy cloud of diesel and heaved into motion.
truck weaved through parked equipment, workers, and marines directing
and rumbled onto Highway 25. At the exit to Eleventh Street, the driver
to the shoulder.
Mary’s car was still in the driveway.
Why didn’t she leave?
She climbed the steps and pushed the door open.
The door abruptly jerked from her hand. Her ex-husband, Anthony, grinned.
A dog howled.
went on and on, mixed with yaps, deep-throated
barks and a whoofing noise that sounded almost human.
She toyed with the idea of getting up and finding an aspirin. Maybe Bethany can—“Bethany!” Her mind snapped into focus, and she opened her eyes. She was lying on the floor of her living room. The room was dark except for the last sunlight of the day, which cast a weak pool of fading daylight in front of the partly open door. The late evening sun reflected off towering clouds, turning the sky red.
Sharon’s hands were tied behind her back. She tried to move and found that her legs were tied too. Spots formed in front of her eyes as she raised her head and scanned the room. It was empty of people. The whoofing sound she had heard earlier was coming from the spare bedroom. The only sound in the living room was a faint hissing of static from a battery-powered radio.
And they didn’t come back for it. Nice people.
“—tell our listeners when and where the first Exchange happened, Tracy?”
Exchange was five years ago on New Zealand’s
North Island,” a female voice, apparently Tracy, said. “That’s actually
the best places it could have happened. New Zealand is one of the most
isolated large land masses on earth, so the Bear Country animals
to spread far, even though we didn’t have a response ready. Also, the
Country animals on
The DJ was saying, “A lot of people expected glaciers. Can you explain why we don’t see that?”
“We didn’t go back in time to the ice age. We went sideways into another reality. Animals like mammoths and sabertooths survived in Bear Country. They didn’t back in The World. The climates are pretty much the same.”
Why didn’t you do a half-assed job on this like you do on everything else?
She went to work on the ropes with her teeth. That set her jaw to throbbing even more.
animals get from
through the door faded as
On the radio, the DJ asked, “If you went out into Bear Country, what would you be most afraid of?”
“But what is the most dangerous animal in Bear Country?”
“—and there are amber wolves, cheetahs, plus the tough plant-eaters like Mastodons and the big kangaroos.”
“I don’t think of kangaroos in the same danger class as sabertooths.”
“These are. Don’t mess with them.”
“There are a lot of things we don’t want to mess with in Bear Country.”
we quarantine Exchange Zones,”
The radio broadcast ended and the whole house was quiet for a time, uncomfortably quiet. She found herself almost hoping the dog would howl. The huffing from the bedroom came again. What is that? Bethany? She called her daughter’s name out loud.
The huffing sound came and then the dog’s howl. “Save your breath, will you?” Or keep howling until someone comes to take care of you and maybe they’ll find me. She tried to trace the knots on her wrists in the fading light. She bit a knot and pulled at it, pain radiating from the bruise on her jaw.
thought about who might come by and help her. Her sister was still in
still I miss them. Pathetic. She had a
flash of her dad leaning on his cane and peering
down at her. “Well, this is what you get when you marry a nice car, a
of hair, and the paranoid nutcase who came with them.” And
then he would say something about Anthony causing
faint sound from outside caught her ear. A car. She turned, half
see her dad’s meticulously clean and polished black Crown
Shadows pooled in the street and lawns outside the open door. She turned so she could keep an eye on the yard while still pulling at the ropes with her teeth. The dog howled again, but the howl choked off abruptly. The street and yard suddenly seemed much darker. She waited for the howling to start again, pulling at the knots more frantically in the dying light as the silence lingered.
The knot finally loosened a little. As she tore at the ropes, she heard a faint sound from the street, a scraping that teased the edge of her hearing. It eased away as she focused on it, then came a little louder as she went back to tearing at the knot. Still no sound from the dog.
The sound from the sidewalk teased her ears again and a light dazzled her.
“Who’s there?” It was a male voice, deep and strong.
in my own house,”
The sound was closer this time. Sharon tried to see past the light, but could only make out a low squat shadow, not much more than waist high. The shadow seemed far too short for the voice. The voice came again, saying, “Computer lady; I recognize you now. What are you doing on the floor and why is your door open?”
“None of your business.”
“You’re in my neighborhood. That makes you my business.”
“Who are you?”
“You alone? That nutcase of an ex-husband still hanging around?”
“Don’t know as you need to know that.”
The figure behind the flashlight got closer. “You’re tied up. Did Anthony crawl out of his whiskey bottle and do something to you?”
brought the whiskey bottle with him. Who are you?” The light neared the
of her steps and
“Neighborhood watch, what’s left of it. I can’t help you with the ropes.”
“I’ll get them.” Sharon got a better look at the man behind the flashlight. “You can’t because you’re in a wheelchair and you can’t get up the steps. You’re the guy who sits at the corner at rush hour.” The old guy who creeps me out. She recognized the silhouette of a shotgun in the man’s wheelchair.
“Name’s Elroy Campbell. Intended to get over and let the dog out but it took a while to get the shotgun from where I hid it so my daughter wouldn’t find it. Yeah, she’s always here to tell me what I can’t do, but did she come get me when the going got tough? Nope. Old coot might have slowed her down. Young healthy thing with a big, strapping husband and no kids. But she got out—and left me here. Well, I can handle things myself, no thanks to her.”
“Can you get the light out of my eyes? Actually it would help if you turned it on the ropes.”
“I’d have told her to take a hike if she had come, but she should’ve come anyway.”
“Haven’t heard from that dog lately.” Elroy flashed his light toward the side of the house. “Thought I saw something move back there. I hope the dog just went to sleep. I’m not counting on it though.”
“So Anthony hit you and tied you up?”
“I thought you were some big martial arts guru.”
“Black belt,” she mumbled through the rope. “Which means I almost got my hand up instead of standing there with my mouth open.”
“Almost doesn’t cut it on blocking whiskey bottles. Want me to call the Marines?”
“I can handle it.”
“Really? How long have you been laying there?”
Hours at least. Too many. Sharon didn’t say anything, but she tore at the rope with renewed vigor. The knot loosened a bit more.
“He took your daughter. I saw them leave.”
“I know. Will you shut up and let me get these knots?”
“Marines won’t do anything anyway. Domestic dispute. Custody battle. They don’t have time to care, even if you tell them he’s taking her to Sister West.”
“He isn’t. They kicked him out. Shut up.”
“Snippy. You realize I used to be a cop.”
“I don’t care. Shut up.”
“Real snippy. Maybe I shouldn’t toss you my pocket knife.”
Even with the knife it wasn’t easy to get the ropes off with her hands tied. Sharon tried to get up after she got the last rope off and fell against the wall. She leaned there until the worst of the dizziness passed, then looked into the flashlight beam. “Thanks. Be back in a minute.”
found a flashlight and ran to the bedroom. “Bethany!” She was
not surprised to see the chubby, sixty-something face of her
babysitter, Mary, who
was tied up and gagged on the bed. “Where’s
shook her head and made the whoofing sound
“Ex-husband. Where’d he take her?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you know about the trailer?”
“I used to be a cop,” Elroy said. “Your daughter has the face of an angel but she has some issues. You need to get her back before Anthony and company decide to give her an exorcism.”
“They—” Sharon stopped. Might actually do something that crazy. Anthony can’t admit it was probably in his genes. It has to be something I did or the government did or the big corporations did.
“He’ll get around to blaming the devil eventually,” Elroy said. “All she’d have to do is say something and have it come true, like—”
“Babysitter told me she said crash a good ten seconds before two cars ran into each other a while back.”
“I know. She’s a Dustin Hoffman.”
“Rain Man—or Rain Girl, I suppose. Idiot savant. Probably autistic and OCD too. I know that and you know that. I’m not sure your ex-hubby accepts that.”
The beam from Sharon’s flashlight seemed lost as she directed it into the dark street. The houses on her block blended into the darkness. No porch lights. No lights in the windows. Not even a flickering candle. Sharon said, “I wonder why the dog stopped barking.”