Wednesday, July 08, 2009
It hit everyone in the park like a roller coaster suddenly turning at the bottom of a tall drop. Those closest to the sphere, inside the barriers, were knocked to the ground. The murmur of the crowd became a buzz, then a palpable wave of fear rushed through them. Several onlookers turned and walked away as groups of four and five approached from the far sides. The crowd was growing faster than it was contracting.
No one seemed to be hurt and the police officials were scrambling. “Nothing’s working, Loo,” a cop said. “I mean nothing. No radios, no portables, nothing electronic at all. Cars are all dead.”
“Get lots of pencils and notebooks, then. Identify runners,” he said. “Jesus, we’re going old fashioned for this one. Where’s the mayor?” The policeman ran off shouting for two officers to get others leaving the commander to study the sphere.
Jimmy went back and found Deirdre in the crowd. “You okay, kiddo?”
“I guess,” Deirdre said. “Monster headache. Did you hear if they know anything about it?”
“No,” Jimmy said. He turned to look back at the sphere still scrolling the four lines of the riddle across its face. “It sounds awfully familiar. I used to be good at riddles.”
Deirdre said, “Don’t worry too much about it. I’m sure that the fine city officials will do everything they can to keep us safe.” She snorted derision and took a bottle of water from her backpack.
“Your faith in the city fathers is reassuring, dear,” Jimmy said. “From what I hear, though, they’re --- Shit.”
Jimmy smiled. “How do people learn? They see it, hear it or touch it. What happens when people are talking about us? Our ears burn. Shit, the riddle’s answer is ‘What is the ear?’”
Deirdre looked puzzled. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “I’m sure.” He looked through the crowd. “I’m going to see if they haven’t figured it out. If they have, I’ll be back in a minute.”
Jimmy wound his way through the crowd. Some were scared and crying, others staring, still more praying in groups. Several were packing up their camp chairs and leaving. Soon he found two uniformed police talking to another official-looking man.
“Take McCay and Beck and Howell to the Corps of Engineers,” the official man said. “Have Simmons and Waters do a perimeter walk. Be back here by noon with the stuff.” The two cops nodded and walked away and the speaker noticed Jimmy waiting.
“Sir, we need everyone back behind the barriers, please.”
“I think I’ve figured out the riddle,” Jimmy said. “It’s an ear. ‘What is an ear?’ or just ‘Ear’, depending on what form the sphere wants.”
“The sphere?” the official said. “Oh, yeah. We’ve got folks from the University working on it. I’ll let them know what you said.” He nodded at Jimmy and turned to walk away.
“You’re not going to do something stupid like try to blow it up, are you?”
The official stopped and turned back to Jimmy. “Where did you hear that?”
“Is that confirmation?”
“Are you press?” The official faced Jimmy and put his hands on his hips. “Who the hell are you?”
“Jimmy Cavanaugh, concerned citizen and knowledgeable about the See oh Eee.”
“Police chief Goodby.”
“Ah,” Jimmy said. They shook hands. “Are you planning to blow it up, then?”
“Come with me,” Chief Goodby said and they walked into the park toward the sphere. “How did you come up with ‘ear’?”
“The clues are kind of heavy handed: burning, a way to learn, waves on drums. That part threw me a little.” The two men stopped and looked at the object. “Do you know why it’s here?”
“Nope,” Goodby said. “Complete mystery. Add in that we can’t seem to reach anyone and it’s pretty goddamn scary.”
“Yeah, Chief,” Jimmy said. “But just because it’s scary doesn’t mean we should go nuclear. Can we try the answer and see what happens? What does it cost you to wait five minutes and see?”
“I don’t know. It’s counting down and if you’re wrong... “ Goodby sighed. “I shouldn’t do this,” he said and closed his eyes. Jimmy waited.
“All right,” the chief said with a deep breath and standing up straight. “Let’s see what happens.”
He motioned behind Jimmy and a uniformed officer ran up to them. “I need the mayor down here now. Go.” The officer nodded and ran off.
Jimmy and Chief Goodby finally stood about ten feet from the sphere. Close up, Jimmy saw a face that looked like Plato and a sphinx sculpted on the base, a diagram of the solar system and a representation of DaVinci’s The Vitruvian Man. He turned to Chief Goodby. “It looks like that space thing they shot off in the 70s,” Jimmy said. “The one that says ‘we come in peace’, doesn’t it?”
“I was never one for NASA, so I can’t say. How do we tell it the answer?”
Just then there was a hum from the sphere and the crowd reacted behind the control barriers. The digital clock stopped. “I think you just said we were ready, Chief.”
The sphere glowed red, then yellow, then scrolled the riddle across its face again:
I am one way to learn
And have been known to burn
Waves break upon my drums
Which are defective in some.
WHAT AM I?
Jimmy moved forward, stood straight and proud as much for the appearance to the crowd as from any bravery and said, “An ear.” The Chief was six feet behind him when the sphere suddenly glowed green and the hum became a whistle and stopped. Then it began to pulse its greenish-blue color again, ten times. The digital clock went crazy and ran randomly through all its numbers went blank.
Chief Goodby said, “Shit. Now what?”
“Let’s see what it gives us next,” Jimmy said.
The sphere swirled colors and shapes and lines. Green became blue became red and repeated. Circles became squares became triangles and then ran through the three colors again. There was a swirl of all three colors and then more words scrolled like movie credits over the face of the sphere:
Pronounced as one letter,
Though written with three,
Two letters there are,
And two only in me.
I’m double, I’m single,
I am black, blue and gray,
I am read from both ends,
The same either way.
The clock flicked its red numbers back on at 4:00, seconds seeming to flit by until it changed to 3:59. “Four hours?” The Chief looked at Jimmy, who was scribbling the riddle into a small notebook with a pencil. Then he watched as Jimmy checked his writing while the riddle scrolled again and again. “Any ideas? That’s a helluva lot less time than the first one.”
Jimmy turned from the sphere and began pacing, tapping the pencil on his goateed chin, repeating the riddle over and over. “Two letters, two only…”
A runner charged up to Chief Goodby, out of breath. “The mayor’s on her way, but she said to tell you we’re off the grid completely.”
“What do you mean, ‘off the grid’?”
“She didn’t explain,” the officer said standing up straight. “Eight o’clock briefing?”
“Yeah,” the chief said. “Cavanaugh, keep working that riddle. Get me an answer.”
“Right,” Jimmy said. “Don’t blow anything up, okay? I don’t think it’s dangerous. I think the sphere is trying to talk to us.”
“Hope you’re right about that.”
Jimmy found Deirdre on the curb at the edge of the crowd, sat and began working the riddle. “Can you figure it out?” she asked him.
“I’ve solved a few of them over the years,” Jimmy said. “I just need some time and I hate being on a clock.”
“This might not be good for you then,” Deirdre said, and pointed up the street. “I hate parades.”
Now Jimmy could hear the sound of marching boots, punctuated by occasional shouts. The people in the park around the barriers were lined the street like runway landing lights. Some in the crowd shouted support, expressed relief at the arrival of authority. Others took Deirdre’s view. “I hate soldiers.”
“They have their purpose, Deirdre,” Jimmy said studying his little notebook. “’Read the same either way’… Damn. It just doesn’t…” He looked up. Police were moving the barriers blocking the street that ran through the park so the soldiers could move in easily and the onlookers would still be kept back. The soldiers were carrying rifles and the sounds of their boots echoed off the limestone courthouse. Deirdre shivered.
Mayor Gerdes was arguing with Chief Goodby across the street. Neither looked happy. Three dark-suited men who came from the opposite side of the park behind them joined the conversation. After a short exchange a scowling Chief Goodby stomped across the street towards Jimmy and Deirdre.
“FBI wants you now, Cavanaugh. Tell me you have the riddle solved, or they take over.”
”Disconnect” continues next week in Part 3! CLICK HERE FOR PART THREE
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
Can’t wait? You can buy the whole story for 49¢ by clicking on the button below and I’ll send you a DRM-free PDF via email!