The Rockton Incident


by Norsebard







This short horror story is to be categorized as a Beyond Uber. All characters are created by me, though a few of them may remind you of someone.

The story contains plenty of profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.





Written: for the 2017 Royal Academy of Bards' Halloween Invitational.

As always, I'd like to thank Wendy Arthur for her sterling work :)

CAUTION: This is not a happy-go-lucky tale.

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D


Description: As the residents of Rockton, a small desert hamlet somewhere in the western United States, go through the regular preparations for Halloween, they are unaware that the real horror will not come from Jack O'Lanterns or the plastic cobwebs that are ready to come up in the small town's traditional stores, but from a source no one had even considered a threat. Six minutes past seven in the morning, the peace is shattered in the quiet hamlet, and that is only the starting point for what will be known as the Rockton Incident…





10:23 AM

The noises produced by the medical helicopter's flapping tandem-rotors were deafening, and the orange-brown dust that was kicked up from the perpetual motion obscured the view of the ruins of the low buildings Danielle Dwyer had just been evacuated from. The gurney the woman had been put on was wheeled into the hold of the helicopter and secured into several sturdy locks.

Wide, frightened eyes tried to peek through the mask and the strange plastic sheets they had put on her to protect her from the hellish environment outside. She sensed rather than saw that her clothes had been removed and that most of her body had been coated in some kind of white talcum. Her skin crawled like an army of ants was using her as their highway, but it was nothing compared to the burning sensation that rose from her lungs whenever she tried to breathe.

A person clad in a white haz-mat suit hovered over her; the person seemed to speak to somebody up front in the helicopter, but the rotors were so loud the voice was drowned out. Panic flared up inside Danielle and soon turned into an unstoppable tide of fear. Trying to cry out, she wiggled about on the gurney, but she was soon fixed into position by a pair of strong hands that were covered by orange protective gloves.

'Remain still!' the person clad in the haz-mat suit commanded in a strong voice to be heard over the flapping rotors. The person's mask muffled the tones, but it had sounded like it was a man.

"Am… am I… am I the only one alive?  The C- Colonel?  My fr- friends?" Danielle croaked; for each syllable she uttered, it felt like chunks of tissue were being torn from her burning lungs. She wanted to go on, but found she had so little air left she needed to preserve all of it for breathing.

The person hovering above the prone woman prepared a syringe and leaned down towards the patient. 'Don't speak… we have a long way to go. This will help you fall asleep. Once you have, we'll feed you pure oxygen through a tube. It will help you breathe. You've made it so far, but I can't give you any promises. You'll just have to trust us.'

Trust the strange people in the haz-mat suits was the only thing Danielle Dwyer could not do - not after the events that had unfolded in Rockton over the course of the past few hours. Blinking away tears, she moved her eyes away from the man to stare at the metal roof of the medical helicopter…



06:39 AM - Four hours earlier.

'Rockton, 3 miles - Where the desert meets the prairie!' the square road sign proclaimed as the thirty-nine-year-old Danielle Dwyer drove her all-terrain Jeep out of the dusty desert and onto the two-lane blacktop that led to the small hamlet. A chilly wind swept in from the wide-open spaces surrounding the road, but Danielle only had the Jeep's heater to keep her warm on her way back to Rockton - the ragtop was missing, but she had removed it on purpose.

She wore rugged boots, faded black jeans held in place by a broad, commando-style belt, and several layers of shirts and blouses to stay warm. On top of it all, she had donned her favorite bright-red down vest that was a good match to the color of her hair; the bandanna she had tied around her head did not do a good job of keeping her locks safe from the headwind.

As the editor slash photographer slash public relations liaison slash sole journalist for the region's local online newsletter, she had spent the past several hours in the desert waiting for the moment where dawn broke and the sun would rise above the horizon. She was only an amateur photographer compared to the real professionals, but she was pleased with the photos she had snapped, and she knew she had the headlining story for the following issue all tied up.

Cresting the next hill, Rockton came into Danielle's field of view - of course, the sights were less than plentiful as the desert town was just a collection of low buildings centered around the two-lane road that cut straight through it. The shiny water tower with the row of red letters caught her eyes at once as a positive feature, but in the western part of the town, the old stationhouse seemed to grow into a worse eyesore for each passing day.

The north-south railway line that ran past Rockton had been out of commission for decades, but it had seen plenty of activity in recent times: the US Army used sheer endless freight trains to haul heavy equipment to and from the new army post which was under construction some fifty miles further south. Though the Governor had tried to press for it, the contract for reviving the line had not included renovating all the old civilian stops along the route, so the stationhouses were left to rot.

To Danielle, that was a crying shame, but the support she had tried to drum up through the online newsletter had not been strong enough to save the buildings. It irked her, but she realized she had to pick her battles, and this was one she needed to let go.


Driving onto Main Street itself, Danielle pulled the Jeep down to the speed limit which stood at twenty-five miles per hour. It was still too early in the day for most of the town's three hundred residents to be up and about, but there were some trucks and SUVs driving along the two-lane road.

The southern end of Rockton saw several empty stores that hid behind boarded-up windows, but the central part of Main Street still showed signs of life in the shape of a Bar & Grill that carried the name 'Beers Burgers & Booze' on the marquee above the door, an old-fashioned barber shop for the men, a stylish hair-care salon for the women, and finally a traditional American diner.

Several churches had been placed on both sides of Main Street a short distance further north, and the baseball pitch that had been built at the foot of the water tower tried its best not to be dwarfed by the spindly contraption. The pitch was no longer in regular use as Rockton did not have enough people to field proper teams for games, but the bleachers saw occasional action on Saturday nights when they became the town's hot spot for young people to make out.

One of the oblique parking slots in front of the diner was empty, so Danielle decided to claim it before someone else would. Spinning the Jeep's steering wheel around, she made half a U-turn across Main Street and came to a halt up against the curb. After turning off the engine, she grabbed her camera case and pulled the strap over her shoulder.

A mug of strong coffee beckoned, but before she could cross the sidewalk to reach the diner - that had only been open for business for less than ten minutes - her eye caught the familiar figure of the town's eccentric who walked toward her carrying some kind of electronic equipment.

In his late forties, Buddy Eckbert displayed all the hallmarks of the typical paranoid conspiracy theorist. Tall, gangly and balding - like a human turkey buzzard - he was never seen wearing anything other than rugged outdoorsy clothing so he would be able to get unscathed through the freezing desert nights in case the black helicopters would track him down for discovering The Truth.

At present, he wore a set of desert boots, insulated pants fit for an Alaskan winter, a heavy-duty denim jacket, a pair of thick gloves, and his trusty pitch-black shades that he never took off whenever he ventured outside during the daytime. According to his own brand of logic, the shades would protect his brain from the subliminal messages added to the sun's ultra-violet rays by the government's finest - or most devious, depending - scientists.

He was headed for an old, dilapidated Ford truck with the electronic equipment he was carrying, but he stopped and offered Danielle a grin when he saw her. "Howdy, Miss Dwyer!  Nice day!"

"Howdy, Buddy. Yeah, it sure is," Danielle said and shuffled closer to the older man. Ever since she had heard that he always wrapped his crown jewels in tin foil to stop the killer rays from frying his sperm cells, she could not help but glance at his crotch, wondering if it was really true.

Buddy resumed walking toward Danielle once he had deduced from her breathing and blinking eyes that it was really her and not one of the thousands of anti-terrorist aggressor-bots sent out at random by the Pentagon to field test their combat readiness. "You're up early today. Or maybe it was a late night?"

"No, I've been in the desert taking pictures," Danielle said and patted the camera case. "It was a beautiful dawn. I got a couple of great shots that I'll use for the next issue."

"That's great. See any chemtrails while you were out there?"

Danielle sighed under her breath; she screwed a smile on her face so she could avoid rousing the paranoid man's suspicions. "No, the sky was clear in all directions, Buddy."

"Ah. Okay. I guess they're only visible later in the day."

"Yeah… I guess. Whatcha got there?" Danielle said to steer the conversation onto a different, and perhaps safer, topic.

"This?  It's on a need-to-know basis," Buddy said and dumped the equipment onto the Ford's bed. He grinned at her once more as he dusted off his gloved hands. After using the cover of his pitch-black shades to glance up and down Main Street looking for the dreaded Men in Black that he knew would be searching for him, he leaned in toward Danielle and spoke in a hushed voice: "It's for my spy-satellite detector array. I already have the first grid up and running. With this old dish, the next quadrant can be brought online in a matter of days."

"Oh, that's good news," Danielle said, nodding at the older man's words. Through the rear window of the filthy, formerly pale-blue Ford truck, she could see a strange apparatus hanging in the shotgun rack. It had two rows of blinking lights that seemed to go off at random. She had no idea what it was, and she was not going to ask.

"Yeah. Did you hear the supersonic boom the other night?"

"Uh… the what?" Danielle said and furrowed her brow. "I thought it was called a sonic boom?"

"So you did hear it!  No, this one was definitely a supersonic boom. They're testing the captured UFO again, I'm sure of it. I'll bet you a hundred bucks that's what the new army base is for. Some kind of Black Ops thing that can't see the light of day," Buddy said and took off his gloves. Smacking them together to rid them of excess dust, he stuck them into the rear pocket of his rugged, insulated pants.

Danielle sent the diner a longing glance, wondering if she would ever get to enjoy that coffee. Grimacing, she turned back to the older man. "Well, uh… yeah… but I'm pretty sure it was a thunderstorm, Buddy… it had lightning and everything…"

Buddy Eckbert shot Danielle a look that spelled out what he thought of the thunderstorm theory. "Maybe it was, but it wasn't a natural one. The government can manipulate the weather by shooting missiles into the sky. That's a proven fact 'cos Red China and North Korea do it all the time. Isn't it convenient how a thunderstorm always appears when they want to test their UFO?  Coincidence?  I think not."

Danielle was running out of polite things to say in the peculiar conversation, so she settled for smiling at the older man. "Say, it's been nice talking to you, Buddy, but I can hear a cup of coffee shouting my name," she said, already on her way over to the diner.

"All right," Buddy said with another grin as he opened the Ford's door. "But watch yourself. They are everywhere. I hope you know that."

"Oh, I certainly do. See ya," Danielle said, not wanting to ask who 'They' were out of fear of triggering another lengthy tale of rampant paranoia.

She kept standing in the doorway until she could no longer see the exhaust fumes of the pale-blue pickup truck out on Main Street. "I know it takes all kinds, but sheesh," she mumbled as she stepped inside.


06:51 AM

Several bells jingled as the door was opened, drawing the attention of the five people inside the diner. The owner of the establishment, Warren Correll, stood behind the long, shiny counter to the right of the entrance working on an orange-colored banner. He nodded a good-morning greeting at Danielle as she walked inside and closed the door behind her.

As always, Warren kept his diner squeaky clean. The black-and-gray vinyl tiles on the floor were so shiny they could be used as mirrors - the real mirror was hanging on the wall behind the counter like in a saloon in the Old West - and the eight square tables all carried neat, spotless tablecloths held in red, white and blue. In addition to the tablecloths, each table was equipped with a small tray that offered the customers napkins, toothpicks and salt and pepper shakers as well as bottles of ketchup, mustard and home-made hot sauce.

The wall opposite the counter and the large mirror was less flashy on the whole, but the bricks - which had been painted tan - were clean and free from the stains of ketchup, cooking grease and spilled coffee that seemed to be the order of the day in many other diners.

Danielle stepped aside to allow an elderly lady carrying a tiny, fuzzy lapdog free passage to the door. As they went past each other, a good-morning greeting was delivered in a nod and responded to in kind. The three remaining guests in the diner - an old, married couple and a girl in her late teens - were mulling over their full mugs like the hot liquid was the only thing keeping them alive.

Smiling at the sight of the cleaning mop leaning against the table where the young girl sat, Danielle moved over to the counter and hopped up onto one of the tall bar stools. "Good morning, Warren. Black coffee and a hot slice of apple pie, if you don't mind. Hold the whipped cream," she said and found her wallet ahead of time. Since she already had her hands on her down vest, she slipped it off and put it on the stool next to her.

Warren Correll was a dapper man in his late fifties whose youthful-appearing, dark-brown hair and mustache came from his wife - she owned the hair-care salon next door, so she was an expert in making gray hairs vanish by way of dye. As always, he was dressed to the T in a maroon Western-style shirt and black pants held in place by a leather belt carrying a large, silver belt buckle.

Though he had developed a small double-chin and the early beginnings of a potbelly in recent times, he still carried the upright stance he had gained decades earlier when he had served as a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps. "Coffee and apple pie comin' right up," he said in his trademark strong voice that always held a warm, friendly undertone.

After he had finished pouring steaming hot coffee into a white mug, he took the lid off a tray and selected a solid slice of apple pie that he proceeded to put into the microwave. It only took a short while before the electronic bell rang and he extracted the slice once more. On his way back to his first real customer of the day, he let out a grunt at the sight of his daughter slouching at one of the tables. "For Pete's sakes, Shannen, can't you at least sit up straight?  Looks like you don't have a bone in your body."

"Too early for that, Dad," the teen girl mumbled, sounding like a zombie fresh out of the grave. Moving like one too, she reached for her mug of tea and took a large swig.

Danielle smiled at the predictable exchange, but it seemed that Warren was less enthusiastic. "Anyway," he said as he turned back to the journalist to deposit the mug and the plate carrying the steaming hot slice of apple pie, "you look like you've been up for a while. I thought I heard your Jeep driving past at four or so. I guess I did."

"Sounds about right. I drove into the desert to shoot the sunrise. I think I got a couple of great shots out of it… but I'm not gonna do it again tomorrow if they come out blurry!" Danielle said and let out a short laugh.

Warren laughed as well as he scooped up the excess crumbs that had fallen off the slice of pie. "I saw you talking to Buddy. I hope he didn't bother you too much with all his harebrained ideas and theories," he said as he dumped the crumbs into a waste bag underneath the counter.

"He didn't," Danielle said and put down the money needed to pay for the delicious treats. Reaching for a napkin and a pastry fork, she soon cut off a bite-sized corner of the pie. "Okay, he's a little nutty, but-"

"A little nutty?  I'd call him a major nut. Hell, he's a coco-nut!"

"Geez, Dad!" Shannen groaned, shaking her head in despair over her father's attempts at humor at five to seven in the morning.

Warren chose to ignore his daughter's comment and moved back to the orange-colored banner he had been working on. "Enough about him. Take a look at this, Danielle… it's for our theme-night on Halloween. Like it?" he said as he held up the five-by-two-foot plastic banner that cried 'Rockton, Hell On Earth, Oct. 31st!' in a big, black, bold font. At either end of the banner, hand-drawn, wicked caricatures of Jack O'Lanterns and Pumpkin Women - that shared more than a passing resemblance to certain residents of Rockton - had been sticky-taped onto it.

"Well," Danielle said and scratched her cheek. "I don't know. I think the banner is pretty cool in itself, but those portraits… they look odd sticky-taped onto the rest like that."

Warren let out a grunt as he lowered the banner and turned it around so he could give it another critical look. "Yeah, I know. I had already sent it to the print shop when Stan Jones offered to draw the caricatures… and I didn't want to turn him down. So…"

"Aw, it'll be fine, Warren," Danielle said and concentrated on cutting a big bite out of her hot slice of apple pie. "Say, isn't your wife in town today?  I need a trim, but I noticed the hair salon wasn't open yet…"

"No, she's in Rosburgh to buy supplies. She'll be back later today, but I don't think the salon will be open for business until tomorrow."

"Oh… okay. Ah, my hair can wait a day."

An electronic ding from one of the diner's bread ovens made Warren put down the banner in a hurry and scoot over to rescue the next batch of hot pies before they would be incinerated. A lovely smell spread through the diner as he took out a wire rack that carried two baking tins. "Hey, the season's first pumpkin pies look good!  Mmmm, smell even better!" he said as he swung the wire rack around and put it on the lower end of the counter.

Once he had transferred the two pies onto the counter, he shoved the rack back into the oven and reached into a drawer to find a suitable carving knife. "Anybody up for a little sample?  They're on the house. I've made a bog-standard pumpkin pie and a special I'm going to call Warren's Special Pumpkin Pie if it's any good!"

"Oh, Dad…" Shannen groaned from her table.

"I'm always up for a little adventure," Danielle said with a grin. Stuffing the remains of the apple pie into her mouth, she held out the empty plate so Warren could cut her a slice of the special one.


07:04 AM

"Well," Danielle said as she dabbed her lips on a napkin. While it was there, she used it to conceal a yawn that snuck up on her. "I s'pose I better head home for some shuteye before I go to work. I might fall asleep over the keyboard if I don't," she continued as she pushed the empty plate and mug across the counter.

"We wouldn't want that," Warren said with a grin. "A newsletter full of typos will only give Rockton a bad name, after all." His grin only grew wider as he delivered his statement.

Danielle rolled her eyes at the gentle jibe as she hopped off the tall bar stool. "That happened once, Warren!  Once!  And that was only because my computer got a nasty virus!"

"Y'know, if I had a dime for each time I've heard that…"

The two old acquaintances chuckled at the exchange before Danielle donned her vest and found her wallet again. "I don't have a dime for you, but here's a couple of bucks for the collection box. What's it for this month?" she said and put a five-dollar bill into the plastic box that had been placed up at the other end of the counter. It already contained plenty of money which was normal for Rockton.

"The American Red Cross. The drive ends on Halloween. Looks like several hundred dollars so that's pretty good."

"Yeah. See ya, Warren," Danielle said and began to shuffle over to the entrance.

"Not so fast, young lady!  I need the verdict on my special pumpkin pie before I'll let you go anywhere!" Warren said and crossed his arms over his chest in a pose that was meant to appear menacing.

Coming to a halt on the smooth vinyl tiles, Danielle turned back to the owner of the diner and offered him a sheepish grin. "Aw, shoot, I'd hoped you'd forgotten about that… it was… it was… uh…"

"That bad, huh?"

"No, not bad as such… I just wasn't ready for that much chili this time of the morning… especially not in a pumpkin pie," Danielle said with a grin. "Beyond that, it was-"


07:06 AM

At that exact moment, a strong tremor rolled over the diner; not only did it make the mirror behind the counter rattle, it caused all the clean mugs, tumblers and plates on the shelves to jingle and jangle - then it left Rockton behind as swiftly as it had come.

The first few seconds after the strange jolt went by in a stunned silence, but then everybody inside the diner acted at once: The old, married couple jumped up, paid Warren what they owed and hurried out of the establishment in case the tremor would return. Danielle ran outside as well to check if she could see anything untoward on the street, but she was soon back inside. Even Shannen bolted upright for a while, but as it became apparent nothing further was going to happen, she slipped back into her favorite slouch.

"All right, what the hell was that?" Warren said as he checked the wall-mounted clamps holding the large, heavy mirror in place. When they seemed to be solid, he let out a sigh of relief.

"I don't know… an earthquake?" Danielle said, moving back to the counter.

Warren grimaced as he moved down to the cupboards and pushed the various utensils back into order on the shelves. Some of them had come far too close to falling off the edge for his liking, but he had been spared any shards. "Could be, but… mmmm," he said as he walked back to Danielle. "I don't think so… it was too brief."

Shouting from the street made the three remaining people inside the diner crane their necks to look for clues. When a few citizens began to engage in an animated conversation while they pointed south, Danielle and Shannen hurried out onto Main Street to see what was going on.

'Is that smoke?  I think that's smoke!' somebody said. In the two minutes that had gone by since the strange tremor, more than a dozen people had gathered in front of the diner - it was the largest gathering of residents since the Fourth of July celebrations.

Danielle followed the pointing fingers to look south. Above the hill where she had only just been with her Jeep as she came back from the desert, a pitch-black column of smoke rose high into the cobalt-blue sky. At the same time, two dots seemed to circle close to the rising column of smoke; the two dots were soon joined by a third one that moved in the opposite direction of the other two.

Moving a little slower than the younger people, Warren Correll soon came to a halt next to Danielle and his daughter. Part of the reason for his delay was that he had snatched a pair of strong binoculars on his way out. He used them for hunting jackrabbits on his infrequent days off, but they came in handy for the present situation as well. Holding them up, he checked out the unfolding scene. "Helicopters," he said while he held the oculars against his eyes. "Army Hueys. Could be we have a train wreck out there…"

"One of the military transports?" Danielle said, shielding her eyes to stare at the tiny dots that fluctuated in size as they came closer or went further away during their circling.

"No other trains use the line, so it's gotta be. An equipment transport was scheduled to go by today… but this one must have come from the post. No trains have gone south past Rockton this morning, that's a fact," Warren said, lowering the binoculars. His curiosity got the better of him and he was soon looking through the oculars once more so he could get a feel for what was going on in the far distance. "Well, the helicopters aren't coming any closer… they're just circling by the smoke."

Danielle didn't have time to reply - she was already on her way over to her Jeep. All thoughts of sleep had vanished as her instincts for reporting took over, and she was determined to get plenty of coverage of the accident, whatever it was.

Hopping into her car, she put the camera case into the passenger side footwell for protection before she reached into her vest's liner pocket for her telephone. She let out a mumbled curse when she realized she had to turn it on before she could call anyone; the next mumbled curse was even stronger as a result of the time it took the advanced piece of gadgetry to power up.

The sound of wild and unrestrained honking made her turn her eyes away from the booting telephone to seek the cause of the noise. It proved to be Buddy Eckbert whose dilapidated Ford truck came barreling up Main Street like the Devil - or an entire regiment of Men in Black - was on his tail.

When Buddy reached the gathering of people outside the diner, he slammed on the brakes which made the Ford come to a screeching, tire-smoking, four-wheel-sliding halt. Jumping from the truck even before the old springs had settled down, he ran over to the others and began a victory dance right in the middle of Main Street. "Didn't I tell ya?  Didn't I tell ya?!  Who's paranoid now, huh?!  Toldya those army guys were up to no good!  You felt that tremor?  Of course you did!  Betcha a thousand bucks they were secretly hauling a chemical agent that just went ka-bloomey!"

"Buddy, give it a rest, will ya?" Warren tried, but the conspiracy theorist had no intention of stopping.

"Y'all can thank me later!  All right, we need to get organized!  The black helicopters will be here soon to make sure that everything remains hush-hush… we need to distribute the C-rations, the water, the air filters and plenty of shotgun shells for everybody. C'mon, people, get your fingers out… we don't have much time!"

Danielle's telephone had finally finished booting, and she went through the registry in a hurry to find the number for a freelance photographer she knew lived fifteen miles south of Rockton. As the phone started ringing, she turned the Jeep's ignition key and reversed out of the parking bay.

Moving the shifter into drive, she gunned the engine and raced down Main Street to get to the accident site before any of the national newshounds would pick up on the fact that something had happened out there in the middle of nowhere.

She kept the telephone glued to her ear to be able to hear the conversation above the turbulence caused by the headwind, but even so, she nearly missed the freelancer answering the call at the other end of the connection.

'It's Ray Douglas… what the hell can be so important that you have to call me at this ungodly hour, Danielle?'

"Ray, listen!" Danielle cried to be heard over the buffeting. The strong headwind grabbed hold of her bandanna and tried its best to tear it off, but she had no hands left to keep it in place - inevitably, it blew off and fluttered onto the road some distance behind the speeding Jeep. "There's been some kind of accident on the railway line!  I'm heading out there now!  Are you up?"

'Well, yeah… but I have someone here-'

"Slap a goodbye kiss on her and get your pants on!  The news is happening right this minute and I'll be damned if I'm gonna miss something as major as this!"

'Yes, boss!'

Roaring along the southern part of Main Street with her boot buried on the gas pedal, Danielle soon flew past the city limit sign. She continued onto the main road south with no intention of slowing down until she had reached whatever it was she was heading for, but the long ascent leading away from Rockton scrubbed off speed from the four-wheel drive vehicle that was designed for slow off-road activities rather than flat-out racing.

'Do you know where the wreck took place?' Ray continued at the other end of the connection.

"No, I don't know the exact location, but there's no way you can miss the column of smoke… it's huge already, and it's only getting huger!"

'Huger… is that even a word?'

"Oh, who cares about grammar now!  Get your truck fired up and come out here… I'll meet you at the-"

The next moment, just as the car crested the hill, the sky turned olive-green right above Danielle's Jeep. She glanced up out of sheer reflex but was unprepared for the ear-shattering noise and cloud of dust that followed the green shadows that whooshed past her.

She let out a loud shriek as the three Huey helicopters roared past her going in the opposite direction. Dropping the telephone like it was a hot potato, she fumbled with the steering wheel to regain control over her fast-moving Jeep but found herself heading for the low ditch on the right-hand side of the road. Only by standing on the brake pedal was she able to stop the vehicle from taking a nosedive off the blacktop and into the rough.

"What the fuck?!" she cried, spinning around in the seat to see what had happened. A good distance behind her, the three olive-green helicopters were flying so low to the ground they were almost grinding the color off the yellow stripe in the middle of the road. "Son of a bitch!" she continued, slapping her cheeks to stave off the effects of the bucket of hot water that somebody had dumped on her skin.

'What the hell's going on, boss?!  Danielle?  Danielle, are you still there?'

Growling out loud, Danielle leaned forward to search for the telephone that had fallen into the footwell. Once she found it, she pressed it to her ear. "Yeah, I'm still here, Ray. Looks like the news just found me instead… I'm not going to the accident site 'cos three army choppers just buzzed me!  They must be coming in to land in Rockton, so… uh… I'm going back there."

'Well, do you want me to come to Rockton, then?'

"No!  Head to the wreck or whatever the hell it is that's going on out there. Call me when you have some news. Okay?  Gotta go," Danielle said before she closed the connection and turned her attention back to operating the vehicle.

After a hurried U-turn that would not have won any prizes for elegance, the Jeep was soon pointing in the right direction and racing back to the town Danielle Dwyer had driven out of only minutes before.



07:24 AM

By the time Danielle came racing back past the city limits sign, the three Army helicopters had touched down right in the middle of Main Street. The citizens gathered at the diner returned to the street once the clouds of dust kicked up by the flapping rotors had dissipated, and they flocked to the helicopters to see what was going on.

Just as Danielle's Jeep came to a screeching halt by the diner, the sliding doors were opened on all three helicopters. Soon, eighteen soldiers clad in combat boots, camouflage fatigues and battle helmets jumped down and fanned out on Main Street. They were armed with automatic rifles, but did not appear threatening.

Once Danielle had turned off the engine, she jumped up in the seat to stare at the unfolding events over the windshield's frame. She cursed under her breath - there was a risk she might miss an important announcement. Grabbing her telephone and her camera case, she made a swift exit from her Jeep and sprinted the rest of the way up to the soldiers, readying her camera while she ran so she would be prepared to snap pictures from the get-go.

The eighteen soldiers were soon joined by one more who stepped down from the passenger side of the lead Huey's cockpit. Swapping the radio headset for an olive-green cap that carried a shiny insignia in the shape of a silver eagle, the person was revealed to be a woman who was as buff as she was tall.

Unlike the men under her command, she wore a camouflaged vest rather than a battle jacket; the sleeves of her olive-green shirt were rolled up to the elbows which allowed the world to see her toned, tanned forearms. On her belt, she carried a walkie-talkie, a combat sidearm in a canvas holster, and two non-descript pouches that appeared to hold spare clips for the firearm.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" the female officer said in a strong voice, looking the citizens of Rockton in the eye as she spoke. "I am Colonel D.E. Heindorff, and I need to speak to the mayor at once."

"The Mayor's Office is in the next town north of here, Colonel," Warren Correll said, stepping forward as the natural spokesperson for the group of spectators. "But it's probably too early in the day to even get him on the horn."

The answer caused a deep frown to develop above the colonel's expressive blue eyes, but before she could make a comeback to the unexpected snag, a blonde in a bright-red down vest raced onto the scene and barged her way to the head of the line.

"This is for the Rockton Online Gazette," Danielle said, holding up her smartphone that had its voice recording app up and running. "Can you give us any information as to the cause of the tremor we felt just after seven AM?  Was it in fact a train wreck?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Colonel Heindorff said, holding her hands in the air. "Let's do this one thing at a time, Miss. I need to speak to the Mayor first-"

"Surely you can give us some kind of information?" Danielle continued, ignoring the officer's evasive tactics. "What was the cause of the explosion?  It must have been violent judging by the size of the column of smoke. Also, aren't the transports typically carrying regular construction equipment like bulldozers?"

Colonel Heindorff slammed her jaws shut and sent the blonde a withering glare. The battle of wills continued like that for a few seconds before the officer opened her mouth again: "I didn't catch your name, Miss?"

"Danielle Dwyer. I'm a reporter for the Rockton Online Gazette."

"Well, Miss Dwyer, your questions are certainly sound and worthy of an answer, but like I was about to say, I need to speak with the Mayor before I can talk to the press," D.E. Heindorff continued, speaking in a civil tone of voice to try to appease the journalist.

Warren eyed the two warring women like he was wondering when a catfight would break out between them. When the stand-off once more grew awkward, he took another step forward and put out his hand. "Colonel Heindorff, I'm gunnery sergeant Warren Correll of the United States Marine Corps, retired. I have the Mayor's telephone number in my diner, and I would like to welcome you over there so you can make the call."

The colonel eyed the hand for a brief moment before she grabbed it to give it a strong shake. "Pleased to meet a fellow serviceman here, Gunny. Very well. Let's go to your diner." Without deeming Danielle worthy of another glance, D.E. Heindorff marched on through the crowd that spread for the imposing officer like the Red Sea for Moses.

Danielle grumbled under her breath at the blunt dismissal. Turning off the voice recorder app, she shoved the telephone into her pocket and took full use of the opportunity given to her by snapping a whole row of pictures of the armed soldiers and the three helicopters.

Muted comments rippled through the citizens, but one man made no attempts at being muted, or even calm. "Told ya!  Told ya!  Ha-hah!  Told ya!" Buddy Eckbert cried, performing a celebratory jig in the middle of Main Street. "Betcha they're gonna spray us all with nerve gas!  They're gonna make us all disappear like that tribe in Puerto Rico or the entire town in Pennsylvania!  Poof!  We'll all be dead!  But I got this… I got this force field activator right here," - he held up the odd-looking electronic gizmo that had been in the shotgun rack in his truck - "and this is gonna create a protective bubble around me once the gas comes!"

"Sheesh… I wish somebody would shut him up… just once," Danielle mumbled under her breath, rolling her eyes at Buddy's paranoid gibberish. When she had snapped nearly fifty pictures of the soldiers and the helicopters, she took several photos of the worried faces among the crowd before the pull of the diner and the people in there became too great.


07:34 AM

Stepping inside Warren's diner, Danielle was on the verge of being bowled over by the din that rose to greet her. As she closed the door behind her - which made the little bells jingle - she came to the conclusion that the diner had not had that many visitors in any one time since the day it opened.

She locked eyes with Shannen who appeared to be jittery about the whole, weird mess they had suddenly found themselves thrust into. Though Danielle tried to send Warren's daughter a smile of reassurance across the crowded room, the teen continued to nibble at her fingernails before she slipped out the diner's back door to get away from the pandemonium.

Colonel Heindorff stood behind the shiny counter pressing an old-fashioned landline receiver to her left ear. To combat the din, she had shoved her free middle finger into the other ear to be able to hear what was said at the other end of the line. "The Mayor is sleeping and you don't want to wake him up?  And why not, if I may inquire?  Ah, I see… because he's always grumpy in the morning," she said into the telephone, looking at the mass of muttering people around her while she spoke. When her eyes fell on the journalist who was still standing at the door, the frown between her blue eyes came back with a vengeance. "Look, Sir," she continued into the telephone, this time in a far harder voice, "this is an emergency and it is imperative that- Yes. Yes. Very well. Tell him to get in touch with the Army post as soon as he wakes up. Goodbye, Sir."

After slamming the receiver onto the wall-mounted telephone, Colonel Heindorff put her hands akimbo and once more sent withering glares at the citizens in general and the journalist in particular. "All right. Listen up. Listen up, everybody!  May I have your attention, please!" she said, holding up her hands - all to no avail.

"Everybody shut the hell up!" Warren roared - that did the trick.

"Thank you, Gunny," Colonel Heindorff said and went back to putting her hands on her hips. "Miss Dwyer, you're about to get your answers… so you better have your recorder ready."

Danielle could not tell whether or not the officer was mocking her, but she readied the voice recorder app in a hurry and held up the smartphone so she would not miss any part of the conversation. "Thank you, Ma'am. I'm ready."

"Good. Very well. Half an hour ago, a freight train-" Colonel Heindorff began, but she was interrupted at once by the noisy arrival of Buddy Eckbert. The town's eccentric stared at her from the doorway for a short while before he shuffled inside and moseyed his way to the head of the line.

Everybody let out identical groans at the perils of having the personification of paranoia sharing a room with the high-ranking officer, but Buddy seemed content with remaining quiet for the time being.

Colonel Heindorff's jaw made a few grinding gestures, but her game face was soon back on. "I'll start over. Half an hour ago, just after seven AM, a northbound freight train transporting various waste materials was involved in an accident four miles south of here. Four high-pressure tank cars carrying methane and other gaseous substances derailed and suffered severe damage. The damage led to a catastrophic explosion and subsequently to the tremor that reached your town. Firefighting units were dispatched from the Army post and arrived at the site a short while ago with the equipment needed to contain the fire. The transport did not carry toxic waste or other agents that could threaten the environment."

Warren Correll furrowed his brow at the odd fact that a regular freight train carrying nothing more dramatic than waste materials would require an airborne escort consisting of three Hueys and eighteen soldiers commanded by a full-bird colonel, but he did not have time to voice his doubts before Buddy beat him to it:

"Pardon my French," the eccentric said in a strong, clear voice, "but that's just pure, unadulterated bullshit."

After a round of shocked gasps and annoyed groans, the diner grew so quiet in such a short amount of time that it was actually possible to hear a hairpin being dropped from the hands of one of the interested spectators.

Colonel Heindorff blinked a few times before she had gathered enough of her composure to reply without swearing. Furrowing her brow, she sent another withering glare at the journalist almost like she suspected the blond woman of somehow being the master puppeteer who controlled the gangly man's strings. "Sir," she said, at least trying to reply in a civil voice, "I can assure you-"

"Don't wanna hear it," Buddy said and shook his head. "It's happened too often. Something awful happens and the government sends in the shock troops to clean up the mess before the public at large finds out about it. It happened last year in Oregon, two years ago in Kentucky and in Tennessee, and-"


"No, no, no, let me speak," Buddy said and stepped forward so he could be at the center of attention. "Friends!  It has been proven without the shadow of a doubt that strange things are going on in our country today!"

"And we're lookin' at the very strangest part of it," Warren said in a droll stage-whisper.

Buddy chose to ignore it and continued: "Did you know that an entire field's worth of cows… that's sixty-seven cows, people!  That sixty-seven cows were made to disappear late last year in Iowa because they had been infected with some kind of toxin that had escaped a lab?  It was reported all over the Internet so we know it's true!  Why, I'm reminded of the countless stories of runaway weather balloons reputedly being at the root of all the UFO sightings!  We all know that our government has in fact been in steady contact with alien lifeforms in the M-one-two-five-slash-ninety-eight-B galaxy for the better part of forty years. Need I remind you that it's seven hundred light years away?  Only through highly advanced alien technology are we able to maintain contact!"

"Then why the hell is it so difficult to get a good connection on the damn phone?" somebody said, causing plenty of snickers to ripple through the crowd.

"Yessir," Buddy continued, so far into his zone that he did not even notice the colonel's eyes shooting him plenty of home-made death rays, "we've been in regular communication with them ever since the magical summer of 1979 where so many UFO sightings saw the light of day that not even the government could keep 'em under wraps!  August Twenty-third 1979… the day when They came, people!  The first contact happened in-"

Danielle continued to record everything on her app, but knew she had to delete ninety percent of everything before she could use it for the online newsletter. While Buddy kept sprouting inanities, she cast a sideways glance at the colonel whose dark, gloomy face proved she had severe trouble keeping her contempt in check.

Warren Correll finally saved the day for them all when he grabbed hold of Buddy's arm and pulled him out of the limelight. "Buddy, do you speak every thought that rattles around in your head?  Don't answer that. I'll give you a free coffee and a donut of your choice if you'll only shut up!"

"Well… I could use a cup of coffee," Buddy said, grinning at the owner of the diner. He took a deep breath to finish his soliloquy, but before he could utter another word, everyone's day was saved when the unwanted performance was interrupted by the walkie-talkie on Colonel Heindorff's belt coming to life with a squawk.


07:48 AM

Happy for the respite, D.E. Heindorff took the portable radio off her belt and strode toward the diner's entrance. Once she was back outside on Main Street, she keyed the mic. "This is Colonel Heindorff," she said as she continued marching onto the three helicopters to get to a safe distance from the civilians. "I read you loud and clear. Go ahead."

Danielle stood in the open doorway watching the officer march on in a powerful stride. Grimacing, she turned back to the crowd of people inside the diner, but the residents of Rockton did nothing but yak. The news was outside, so she readied the voice recorder app once more and hurried out of the door.

She kept at a respectful distance from the colonel while the radio conversation was still taking place, but as soon as the walkie-talkie was put back on the officer's belt, she jumped forward with her telephone ahead of her like a spear. "Colonel Heindorff, may I inquire why such a high-ranking officer as yourself is involved in escorting what appears to be a simple waste transport?  Were you expecting problems?  Was it perhaps categorized as a volatile or high-risk transport?  Until now, most, if not all, of the transports have been southbound carrying construction equipment needed for the planned expansion of the base. Was this particular northbound waste transport scheduled, or rushed into action when a gap appeared?"

"Look, Miss…?"

Danielle narrowed her eyes, annoyed over the fact the colonel had forgotten her name. "Dwyer."

"Miss Dwyer," Colonel Heindorff said and put her hands on her belt. "I think you are trying to create a conspiracy where there is none. Like I said, this was a simple derailment. Several tank cars left the tracks and were damaged as they scraped along the unrelenting desert floor. Sparks were generated and the high-pressure tanks exploded. Case closed."

The telephone in Danielle's hand began to ring all of a sudden, and the colonel took that as her cue to break off and walk away from the one-sided interview. Growling, Danielle knew that the ringing would have suspended the recorder app, so she swiped several times to dismiss the call. When she realized from the caller-ID that the person trying to reach her was the photographer she had sent to the accident site, she changed her mind and accepted it. "Ray, this better be good 'cos I don't really have time to talk now," she said, shuffling around on the spot while keeping an eye on the retreating officer so the buff woman would not get too far away.

'It's good and bad, boss…' Ray said in a muffled voice.

At once, Danielle clicked the small button on the side of her telephone several times to turn up the volume. "You need to speak up… I can hardly hear you."

'I can't.'

"Be more specific, Ray…"

'I'm fairly close to the big-ass fire here at the accident site. It's a train wreck, all right. At least three wagons have derailed. Maybe more. Tankers. The flames shoot maybe four hundred feet into the sky and there's a bunch of black smoke above that. Pretty much your basic inferno here, I think.'

"Okay. I knew that already. You got some photos for me?"

'What the hell kind of question is that?  Of course I do!'

"Good. I'm guessing that was the good news?"

'Uh… yeah. The G.I. Joes have put up roadblocks everywhere around here. And I mean heavy-duty roadblocks with machine guns and Humvees and all sorts of army shit. They're stopping everything that moves on the road. I managed to sneak past them but I think they'll probably send me to Guantanamo if they catch me…'

"I thought that had been closed down?" Danielle said, still eyeing Colonel Heindorff who was busy speaking to one of the three pilots.

'No, they're keeping it open just for me!'

Laughing dryly, Danielle shuffled around a little more. She kicked at a few pebbles with the tip of her boot to have something to do before she could go back to digging into the reluctant officer. "Roadblocks, eh?  Something smells fishy here."

'While we're on that subject… there's a Godawful stench hovering in the air down here. I don't know what the hell it is, but it stinks like a bad combination of warm metal and smoldering organic material.'


'Yeah. Wait, there's something happening down on the tracks… I think a second locomotive has arrived… yeah. Shit, I should have brought some binoculars… a second locomotive has arrived from the south. A bunch of army guys 'r running around trying to uncouple some of the wagons that weren't involved in the wreck. More tankers. I'm too far away to read what it says on the side of the wagons, but… shit, some of the army guys 'r wearing haz-mat suits!  Boss, are you still there?'

"I'm still here. Listen, Ray, if you're sure you have good pix, get out of there before they spot you. Okay?  Don't take any unnecessary risks."

'Oh, I hear you loud and clear, boss… I'll call you in a little while with another update.'

"Great. Thanks, Ray," Danielle said and pressed the red bar to close the connection. Once she had loaded and reactivated the voice recorder app, she put the telephone into her shirt's breast pocket and went looking for the colonel.


Just when Danielle reached the buff woman, the line of questions she had prepared needed to wait for the message that came in on the walkie-talkie. While the colonel answered the squawking radio, the sound of further helicopters approaching from the south reached Danielle's ears, and she turned around to look in that direction.

"All right," the colonel said, turning to the three Huey pilots who were standing near her, "fire 'em up and take off. Find a new LZ a klick north of town. We need the space for the scientists."

The three pilots saluted the superior officer and ran over to their helicopters. Soon, the engines whined and the rotors began to spin around.

"Miss Dwyer," Colonel Heindorff said, wrapping her arm around Danielle's far skinnier shoulders. The touch was not unfriendly, but there was no mistaking the intent. The taller woman turned them both around and pointed at the diner. "The best place for you to be right now is back in there with the others. For your own safety, you need to get off the street."

"Maybe later. Right now, I have a job to do here, Colonel. What's that I hear about you putting up armed roadblocks?  Oh, and this is on the record," Danielle said, reaching into her shirt pocket to retrieve her telephone.

The colonel's jaw slammed shut all over again, and she nodded at the rotors of the three Hueys that were now going at nearly full speed. "The helicopters will be starting now. More will arrive. We need to get off the street, Miss," she said in a far sterner voice.

When the journalist showed no signs of complying with the request, the officer increased her grip around the shorter woman's shoulders, hunched over and pulled her to the sidewalk so the rotors would not be a threat to them. Once there, they turned around and watched the three army Hueys take off in a cloud of dust.

The wall of noise created by the flapping rotors was slow to die down, but when it did, Danielle put the telephone under the colonel's nose all over again. "Now that we can hear ourselves think again, let's get back to business. I've been told that soldiers are trying to uncouple further tank cars as we speak, and that there appears to be personnel dressed in haz-mat suits at the accident site. What's really going on?  Oh, and may I ask for your full name, please?  It's for the article."

"Donna Ernestine Heindorff," the colonel said flatly.

"Oh, wow… really?" Danielle said, almost forgetting all about her hard-nosed tactics. "Ernestine?  That's an unusual name these days…"

"Not in my family. Miss, I don't know where you get your information, but I can assure you that we are merely taking the necessary precautions to contain the fire."

"I see," Danielle said, appearing like she was satisfied with the answer. Smiling, she turned back to the diner and began to shuffle off. Just when the officer relaxed her stance just a fraction, Danielle held up the telephone again. "But can you tell me the cause of the putrid smell that's lingering in the air out there?"

Colonel Heindorff came to a sudden stop and furrowed her brow. "Putrid smell?  I don't know anything about a putrid smell. I was never on the ground when I was there, so I can't help you. I'm sure the large fire is the cause of it, but I can't be more specific than that."

"I see," Danielle said again, nodding at the colonel.

Their conversation was interrupted by a new group of helicopters arriving. Unlike the first three that had been regular, olive-green US Army Hueys, the second group consisted of four, tandem-rotored Chinook cargo helicopters that were painted white. As the large aircraft landed in twos on different parts of Main Street, yellow lettering on the sliding doors proclaimed them to be from the USADCWF.

The noise from the many rotors was even more deafening than before, so Colonel Heindorff needed to put her mouth up close to Danielle's ear to be heard. "I need to speak to those people, Miss Dwyer. Go to the diner like I asked you to," the officer said before she left the journalist behind and ran over to the lead helicopter.


08:06 AM

Inside the diner, Danielle tried to smile at her friends and fellow residents, but the worried looks she got in return made the smile fade away. Warren Correll had been able to create a modicum of peace among the chattering citizens by bribing them with free coffee and samples of his special pumpkin pie, but all his hard work was undone by the arrival of the four cargo helicopters.

Within moments of the Chinooks' tail sections being lowered, the residents of Rockton were pressing their noses against the diner's windows to stare wide-eyed at the group of people wearing white-and-yellow haz-mat suits who swarmed out of the large helicopters.

"Holy shit!  Wouldya look at that!" Buddy exclaimed, holding a half-eaten slice of chili-pumpkin pie in his hand. His exclamation prompted a flurry of similar comments from the others, and it did not take long before the din had risen to the levels it had been at before the coffee and the slices of pie had made everybody content.

"Man," Warren said, shaking his head, "Buddy, I hate to say this… but you may be onto something… as opposed to being on something."

Buddy Eckbert nodded hard. "Yeah, huh?  I knew it would happen sooner or later… they tried to trick us by sending white helicopters instead of their usual black ones which is insanely clever, but… yeah."

"Warren," Danielle said, breaking into the conversation before Buddy could go off on one of his trademark farfetched rants, "U-S-A-D-C-W-F… what is that acronym short for?"

The retired gunnery sergeant shook his head as he looked at the yellow lettering on the side of the helicopters. "I don't know, Danielle… I can't recall ever hearing of such a unit."


Buddy continued: "A cover-up is a cover-up is a flippin' cover-up no matter the color!" he said, smacking his hands together each time he said 'cover-up.' "Oh, and I love the pie, too!" he continued as he picked up the rest of the slice of chili-pumpkin pie and stuffed it into his mouth.

"Oh. Wonderful," Warren said, letting out a dark chuckle.

Danielle grimaced at the sight of the suited scientists talking to the buff colonel. A cold trickle began to spread across her back at the implications; though she tried to remain calm and cool, she could not help but think of a few of the many possible outcomes to the strange scenario - not all of which would feature happy endings for Rockton or the people living there. Taking a deep breath to get her nervousness under control, she began to snap photos of the Chinook helicopters and the people in the bright-white haz-mat suits to take her mind off the potential dangers that were beginning to creep up on them.



08:14 AM

An uneasy silence had once more spread among the citizens crammed into the diner. Many pairs of worried eyes kept track of the progress of the white-clad scientists who appeared to be analyzing samples of rocks and pebbles collected from Main Street and elsewhere. Other scientists were removing dust from the ground through advanced vacuum cleaners that were connected to portable computers.

Danielle had claimed a table the furthest away from the windows so she could avoid torturing herself by looking at the unsettling activities outside. Instead, she had begun to interview some of the residents to get their perspective on the events and other stories they wanted to share.

Warren Correll stood behind the counter, scrubbing an entire wash bowl's worth of filthy mugs and plates to have something to do that did not involve worrying. Buddy Eckbert sat on one of the tall bar stools at the counter, eating the last slice of pie while reading a magazine from the previous week. He wore a smug look upon his face that expressed plenty of satisfaction in the fact that he had finally been proven right.

Danielle smiled at the elderly lady sitting opposite her. "Thank you, Mrs. Lane. That was an interesting story… it's definitely going onto the web site," she said, stopping the recording on her telephone's app which made it automatically save the sound file. Looking at the display, she noted that her battery capacity was down to sixty-eight percent. She had left her charger at home since she did not think she would need it - perhaps she should have brought it after all.

She swiped once, then once more to see the time - it was way past her bedtime considering that it had been more than an hour ago that she had wanted to drive home for a nap to have a clear head for the working day. Just thinking about it made a wave of fatigue roll over her; a yawn snuck up on her that she could not hide in time.

"Danielle," Warren said from behind the counter, wiping off his hands after completing his task of washing off the many mugs and plates, "you want me to make you some strong coffee or something?"

Danielle offered the owner of the diner a tired smile. "No thank you, Warren. I'm fine… just beat. I hope we'll get some answers soon-"

The words had barely left Danielle's mouth before a new tremor rolled over the diner and the rest of Rockton. Unlike the first one that had only lasted a few seconds and had caused no damage worth mentioning, the second jolt hit them hard and sent everyone into a screaming panic.

As a thunderous roar and a raging storm of orange-brown dust blasted everything outside, the large mirror behind the diner's counter tore itself loose from the clamps and fell to the floor - the impact made it shatter into a thousand pieces. Mugs, plates and tumblers performed manic dances that sent them careening over the edges of the shelves and onto the floor where they met their fate in a flurry of white fragments; above the panicking residents of Rockton, the diner's strip lights exploded in showers of sparks and were torn off the hinges. The sound-dampening felt tiles in the ceiling rained down upon the people there, and the large windows to the street wobbled in an insane fashion until they could take no more and fell out onto the sidewalk in a synchronized, ear-splitting crash.

Several car alarms shrieked from out on Main Street, and the army scientists ran around like ants from a hill that someone had poked with a stick. Further sounds of glass breaking reached the ears of the people inside the diner; almost at once, woodwork started creaking and groaning like the roof was considering whether or not it should cave in.

"Get out!  Everybody outside!" Warren Correll barked at the top of his lungs, wading through the piles of shards from the crushed mirror and the countless mugs that had fallen off the shelves. "Buddy!  Help the old folks get outside!  Has anyone seen my daughter?  Danielle?  Are you all right?"

"More or less…" Danielle croaked, brushing fibers of the sound-dampening material out of her hair. "And Shannen slipped out the back some time ago…"

"All right… dammit," Warren continued, stepping over a large pile of junk that used to be his pristine diner.

As the residents of Rockton swarmed onto the street, they all stopped to stare south. Danielle and Buddy Eckbert came last, each holding onto one of the elderly Mrs. Lane's arms. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph…" Danielle croaked as the full scope of the destruction became evident to her.

Main Street was covered in a layer of desert dust that had painted everything in its path in shades of orange-brown. The hair salon and the barber shop next door had both suffered similar damage to the diner, but the 'Beers Burgers & Booze' Bar & Grill three stores further down the street had collapsed fully and had caught fire.

Even that destruction could not prepare her for the sight that slowly rose above the hill to the south of Rockton. A deep-orange mushroom cloud billowed upward until it took up most of the sky in that direction. The cloud continued to grow and expand while a stunned silence spread among the citizens.

"Oh, man… this is the one time I wish I hadn't been right…" Buddy croaked, staring at the horrible harbinger of doom.

Danielle pressed her lips together to stop the cry that was burning at the tip of her tongue. Tearing herself away from the mushroom cloud, she turned to look for the colonel, the scientists and the original group of soldiers who had arrived on the Hueys.

A wild panic had spread even among the professional soldiers, and Colonel D.E. Heindorff was in the middle of it all, barking orders left and right to those of her men who still had enough mental capacity to listen. One by one, the soldiers took off in fast runs to get to the north end of Rockton. Several of the scientists began to gather up their measuring instruments and move them back inside the cargo holds of the Chinooks; the rotors of the large, white helicopters had already begun to move in a desperate attempt to power up while they still could.

Gulping down a bitter surge, Danielle reached into her telephone to call the freelance photographer she had sent south. It came as no surprise to her when the call was left unanswered. She stared at the display for several seconds willing Ray to pick it up, but it soon turned to his voice mail service. She twitched at hearing his cheery voice announcing that he was unable to pick it up but that he would call back as soon as he found the time; she terminated the call at once.

"Colonel!" Danielle cried, turning away from her friends to run over to the officer who was in the process of sending off the final batch of camouflage-clad soldiers. "Colonel!  You lied to us!  You fuckin' lied to all of us!" she cried, flying into the officer's face once she reached her.

"We don't have time for that now!" The colonel barked, shoving the irate journalist back. When the walkie-talkie on her belt came to life with a squawk, she grabbed it at once. "Go ahead!" she said in a strong voice, releasing the little button.

'Colonel Heindorff, this is Air Unit Six,' a male voice said through the crackling connection. A whining, mechanical sound in the background proved that he was transmitting from yet another helicopter. 'You need to head north at once!  Do you read me?  At once!  The wind will send the fallout in your direction. ETA eight to ten minutes.'

"Motherfucker!" Colonel Heindorff barked before she pressed the button again. "That's an affirmative, Air Unit Six. Can you swing around this way for an immediate evac?"

At that exact moment, the large Chinooks began to take off in pairs, creating such a wall of noise that the faint sounds from the walkie-talkie were drowned out. "Say again, Air Unit Six?"

'Negatory, Colonel. It'll take too long.'

A dark mask fell over the colonel's face. Standing stock-still, she appeared to turn into a statue for a few seconds before her years of training in fighting impossible odds took over. "Very well, Air Unit Six. Over and out."

As soon as the walkie-talkie was back on the officer's belt, Danielle grabbed hold of the taller woman's arm. "When are you gonna tell us what the flying fuck is really going on around here?!"

"You're smart!  You draw your own, Goddamned conclusions!  We need to-"

"Don't give me that bullshit!" Danielle cried, taking an even firmer grip around the colonel's buff arm. "I want to hear you say it!"

"Some of the tank cars on that train were carrying one hundred and twenty thousand gallons of an undiluted, experimental toxic agent. They just blew up!  Fact is we only have a few minutes to get everyone to safety before the fallout hits us."

"A toxic agent?  Is that what you do at the base?  It's already operational, and it's a… what… production plant for toxic agents?!"

"Listen to me, Goddammit!" the colonel said sternly, yanking her arm free of Danielle's grip. "If you wanna die out here, be my guest!  We need to get everyone to safety now… the trucks… load everyone onto the trucks and head north."

"We can't get the whole, damn town to fit onto those five trucks, Colonel!" Danielle said, gesturing at the scattered vehicles parked near the stores.

"Then the rest will need to seal the doors and the windows… and turn off the air conditioning. That way, they'll have a fighting chance."

"What windows?!" Danielle roared at the top of her lungs, gesturing wildly at the huge piles of glass shards that littered Main Street. "They were all blown out when your damn toxic agents went sky high!"


08:19 AM

The colonel shook her head in disgust like she had only just noticed the destruction to the civilian property. "We don't have time for this shit," she said and took off in a fast run to get back to the residents of Rockton who had remained at the diner. "Listen to me!  Everybody get onto those trucks and get the hell out of here… northbound!  Gunny!  Gunny, did you hear me?  Get everything organized!"

"Yes, Ma'am!" Warren cried, soon wrapping his arms around the people closest to him to shepherd them across Main Street.

It did not take long for the residents to understand that their situation had turned critical, and they swarmed over to the five dust-covered trucks in unruly clusters.

The drivers of four of the five trucks cleared the windshields and radiator grills of the thick layer of orange-brown dust before they jumped behind the steering wheel and started the engines. Others lowered the tailgates and began to help everybody up onto the flatbeds. A fair amount of pushing and shoving took place, but there were no injuries save for a few bruises and banged shins.

"All right," Warren said, running up to stand next to the driver's side window of the lead pickup truck. His brow had turned damp from the drama and the exertion, and he wiped off the sweat with a trembling hand. "Head north like the colonel said… don't stop 'til you reach Rosburgh. Go like hell but take care of your passengers… we're trying to save lives here!"

When the driver nodded, Warren ran back to the curb so he wouldn't get in the way of the four trucks. His daughter Shannen had been shepherded onto the third truck after she had been found wandering around out back in a state of panic, but it was clear she had not understood that her father had no plans of coming with her. "No!  Stay there!" Warren cried while he waved at the young woman who was already moving to get off the pickup. "Hook up with your mother in Rosburgh!  I'll see you both there!"

They offered each other a quick wave as the truck took off, trailing a cloud of the evil, orange-brown dust that came from all the vehicles' many nooks and crannies.

The fifth and final truck was Buddy Eckbert's old, dilapidated Ford pickup, but the rusty contraption - which only held together due to the paint - did not have the solidity to carry anyone on its flatbed. When several people tried to climb up onto the bed, the inevitable happened. Buddy threw his hands in the air and groaned out loud when the entire left-rear wheel assembly broke apart under the added weight and dissolved in a big puff of rust-brown metal flakes.

"Goddammit, Buddy!" Warren roared when he saw the sorry state of the old, useless vehicle. "That's what you get for not taking care of your things!  Now what the hell are we gonna do?"

Danielle clenched her jaw as she stared at her Jeep. The pull it had on her was overwhelming. All she had to do was to get behind the steering wheel, get as many as she could in the back, and race north to catch up with the others - but since it was nowhere near as spacious as the trucks, she would need to leave a good deal of her friends and acquaintances behind. "I couldn't live with that," she mumbled, digging into her pants pocket to find her keys. "Warren!  Use my Jeep!" she shouted to Warren who gave her a thumbs-up at once.

Before long, a whole host of people had crammed themselves into Danielle's Jeep, and although the engine had to be pressed hard to compensate for the additional weight, it soon chugged along Main Street on its way north.

Danielle stared at the familiar taillights as her car drove away from the dangers. Going slow at first, the Jeep gradually picked up the pace and was soon gone. A panic started to bubble up inside her, and her heart responded by throbbing to such an extent she got a tangy, metal taste in her mouth.

Looking around at those who had not found a spot on the trucks, she counted sixteen people including herself, Warren, Buddy and D.E. Heindorff. The twelve others were a motley bunch of people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Had Buddy's truck been in good shape, they would all have been able to escape as well, but now they were all stuck there, out in the open and in deeper trouble for each passing moment.

"Colonel?" Danielle said, running towards the officer. "Colonel Heindorff, please… what are we gonna do?"

The officer took off her cap to wipe her sweaty brow on her shirtsleeve. "To tell you the truth… I don't know," she said and plopped her cap back on. "We don't have much time now, that's a fact. The air is already getting polluted."

"God… the… the tangy taste?  I thought that was just me!" Danielle said, clutching her head.

"It's not. It's the toxic agent."


"Gunny!" D.E. Heindorff said as she turned back to Warren whose face bore the looks of a man on the brink of a heart attack. His perfect, dark-brown hair and mustache looked even more out of place than ordinary since his sweat-riddled skin had gained a pasty, waxen hue. "There must be somewhere that we can… Jesus, are you all right?"

"No," Warren croaked, shaking his head. "I can't breathe…"

"We need to get inside now!  On the double!" Colonel Heindorff roared at the top of her lungs. When the citizens of Rockton all spun around to stare at her like she had lost her marbles, she seemed to be at a loss for what to do next. "Gunny, for fuck's sake!  There must be somewhere in this pitiful excuse for a town that can be used as a shelter?!"

"C- cold st- storage… room… the h- hatch on the fl- floor b- behind the coun- counter," Warren croaked, falling onto his knees though the colonel tried to catch him and keep him erect. "C- can't… c- can't bre- breathe!" he continued, wheezing like an old locomotive.

Danielle and Buddy stared in a state of wide-eyed shock at their old friend as he crumpled to the ground and rolled over onto his back. His chest heaved like he tried to suck in air, but his lungs or bronchi were apparently already too affected by the toxic agent for him to exploit the oxygen.

"Why… why is he like that?!" Danielle cried, staring at the colonel. "I can breathe just fine!  And so can you… and Buddy!"

Even before the last syllable had left her lips, two more elderly people in the remaining group of citizens began to display similar symptoms to Warren Correll. Wheezing hard to get enough air inside them to sustain life, they began falling over when there was no oxygen to be found.

"Hustle!" The colonel cried, grabbing Danielle's shoulders and shoving her back inside the diner. "Get to the cold storage room!"

"But Warren…"

"You can't help him now, Danielle… but we may still make it out of here alive."

Jumping over the crushed glass, Danielle tore into the ruined diner and came to a crunching stop in the middle of the piles of junk on the floor. The officer followed hard on her heels and began to look for the shelter at once. "I don't know where the cold storage is!" Danielle croaked, rubbing her waxen face. Her forehead began to itch, but when she scratched her skin, it produced a stinging pain rather than relief.

"I do!" Buddy said, moving behind the counter in a hurry. Falling onto his knees, he used his thick gloves to brush aside a pile of fragments before the outline of a hatch appeared. He grappled at a small hook that turned out to be the controlling handle for the sealed hatch. As it opened, a whooshing sound immediately followed by a cold wave that swirled around everyone's feet proved that it was in a good condition. "Down here!  There's a short staircase down to the floor!"

"All right!" Colonel Heindorff said, flying back to the door to look at the progress of the mushroom cloud. Like she had feared, the tone of light had begun to turn orange which meant the leading edge of the cloud had reached them - they had no time left. "Hustle, hustle!  Get down the stairs!  I'll go last!"


08:29 AM

Danielle went first, scurrying down the four, wooden steps that creaked under her weight. The marked difference in temperature between the diner itself and the storage room sent a flurry of goosebumps all over her body, but at least it meant that the cooling fans had been working until the second jolt had cut the power. The two, old-fashioned light bulbs hanging down from the low ceiling were out of commission as well, but the cone of daylight that streamed down through the hatch gave her enough light to see that the storage room would offer just enough space for the remaining residents of Rockton.

Metal shelf-systems carrying glass bottles, plastic jars, canned goods and cardboard boxes labeled 'Halloween Stuff' written in Warren's careful hand lined all four walls, but one of the racks had torn itself loose from the wall and had deposited its contents all over the floor. Danielle had to wade through a pile of Campbell's Tomato Soup - which Warren Correll had used as a base for one of his renowned specials - before she could verify that the walls or the roof weren't cracked. She hurried back to the hatch and looked up at D.E. Heindorff's worried face. "It looks good!  Send 'em down!" she said, moving back as the first pair of legs began to move down the four-step staircase.


Once everyone was in place in the cold storage room, Buddy Eckbert tore back up the short flight of stairs much to everyone's vocal surprise. Upstairs, he shoved the colonel out of the way through a shoulder-block that caught her off-guard.

Jumping clear of the debris, he raced over to the door to Main Street where he stopped and spun around. "I'll take my chances up here, thank you very much!  I don't wanna spend another second in your company… I know too much and you know that I know too much and I know that you know that I know too much!  You'll do some kind of mind-wipe or whatever on us once you seal that hatch… well, that ain't gonna work on me, sister!"

Danielle poked her head out of the hatch with a shocked expression on her face. Though she wanted to get further up, the colonel stopped her and held her back. "Don't be a fool, Buddy… you saw what happened to Warren!"

"Yes, but I'm in far better shape than he was… if I make it, I'll be a legend," Buddy said, thumping his chest. "And if I don't, I'll be the embodiment of this cover-up. See ya!" With that, he spun around and raced out of the door. Small puffs of the orange-brown dust were kicked up by his boots as he sprinted north.

"No!  Oh, that… that… crazy, brainwashed…" Danielle croaked, slamming her fist into the side of the hatch.

"Forget him," Colonel Heindorff said, pushing Danielle's head back down the staircase. "He won't make it across the street. Get downstairs!"

Danielle jumped down the staircase and made way for the soldier. Soon, the colonel closed and sealed the hatch which left the cold storage room in darkness. At first, an eerie silence spread among the survivors, but it did not take long before someone started sniffling, and tears soon fell.

"Everybody, save your strength. Clear the floor and sit down," Colonel Heindorff said, shuffling around inside the storage room that turned out to be on the cramped side once the fifteen remaining people had filed into it.

Danielle did as she was told and shoved aside some of the cans of tomato soup. Sitting down cross-legged on the cold floor, she buried her face in her hands and let out several deep sighs that eventually turned to sobs. Her shoulders soon began shaking from the silent crying that lasted for a few minutes.


08:34 AM

The tangy taste in her mouth did not recede, but at least it did not grow any worse. Her skin still itched like she was on the fourth day of a bad sunburn, but the stinging pain that had come when she had scratched herself made her abstain from trying it again.

She let out a grunt of surprise when she felt a buff arm being wrapped around her shoulders. The touch was far softer than anything the tough colonel had treated her to before, and she did not know quite how to react. Though it was difficult to make out any details in the murky darkness, the colonel went one step further from the soft touch and actually offered her a faint smile.

"Do you have any family here?" the officer asked, pulling her arm back when it appeared Danielle had not been too comfortable with its location.

"No," Danielle said quietly, not feeling like sharing her story with the rest of the people in the cold storage room. "My folks live in another state. I also have a kid brother who's an exchange student in Germany."

"Oh… I spent several years in Germany growing up. That's far away from here."

"Were you an army brat?"

"Yeah. I guess I never left. Do you live in town, or…?"

"No. I have a house a couple of miles south of Rockton. Or I did," Danielle said and let out a long sigh. "Who knows what that area looks like now. Nothing but a deep crater, probably."

"I can't say."

The two women fell silent for a while until Danielle's instincts for reporting made the cogs in her mind come back to work after being numbed by the terrors they had all faced. Reaching into her pocket, she found her telephone and activated the voice recorder app. "Colonel," she said, holding the phone under the officer's nose, "how does that toxic agent thing actually work?  Why does it affect the elderly the worst?"

Colonel Heindorff took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She stared at the telephone's dazzling display for a few seconds, but eventually broke out in a shrug. "I'm not a scientist, but from what I've been told, it's designed to attack the respiratory system from the inside out by contaminating and thus blocking the lung tissue's ability to obtain oxygen. The age of the victims doesn't matter… the levels of their physical fitness do. It's all about the percentage of oxygen in the blood. Those who have lower percentages will die first. Eventually, the lungs will cease to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream for everyone within the target area. Once that happens, they'll go fast."

"Dear God… you've created the perfect hell on earth!" Danielle croaked, almost dropping her telephone. She spent a few seconds fumbling with turning off the voice recorder app before the question burning at the tip of her tongue finally broke loose: "For God's sake… why?!"

"Why?  The same reason as for having any other large-scale weapon. It's an effective deterrence to the enemies of our nation."

Danielle opened her mouth to complain, but the words failed her and she settled for shaking her head in a resigned fashion. Letting out a deep sigh, she buried her face in her hands. Another short minute went past before her heart jumped into her throat - across the storage room, somebody had coughed in the same way the dying people on Main Street had done.

As the cough was repeated, and even intensified, most of the remaining citizens of Rockton flew into a panic. Jumping up, they began to cry out while searching for the infected person in the gloomy darkness.

Danielle remained sitting. Shaking her head in despair, she turned to the soldier next to her and shot her a dark glare. "Congratulations, Colonel," she said in a voice that dripped with sarcasm, "looks like we're about to field test your new pet weapon. Bet that wasn't what you had planned for Halloween!"

Donna gulped audibly and looked up at the sealed hatch to see if she had missed a corner when she had secured it, but no daylight could be seen through the hatch. "Maybe we were exposed to the agent for longer than we thought…"

"Maybe you people shouldn't have been messing with toxic agents in the first place!  Now look what you've done!  You've fuckin' killed us all!" Danielle barked, grabbing hold of the colonel's camouflaged vest.

The expletive was underscored by further coughing by the citizen originally affected; soon, a second person began to cough as well which stirred up a hornet's nest of panic among the remaining residents.

Next to the journalist, Colonel D.E. Heindorff took off her cap and pinched the bridge of her nose with a pair of trembling fingers. She tried to hold it back for as long as she could, but even her strength failed her in the end - a strong, bone-dry cough bubbled up from her chest as her lungs tried to clear themselves of the foreign component that had invaded their soft tissue. "Fuck," she croaked, drawing a wheezing breath to get some oxygen into her system.

Nearly frozen solid in fear, Danielle stared wide-eyed at the buff colonel whose life-expectancy could now be measured in minutes or hours rather than years. "We're all going to die in here…" she whispered, staring into the darkness as further coughs were heard all around her.


10:26 AM

As Danielle Dwyer's mind slowly returned to the present, she clenched her teeth in despair and stared through the two layers of plastic. Her eyes grew wide in terror when she realized that the flimsy plastic was all that protected her from the outside world that had turned so hostile all of a sudden.

The person in the white haz-mat suit above her, whom she presumed was a doctor of some kind, inserted the syringe into her arm and emptied the contents into a vein. It only took a short while before the sedative substance began to work, but Danielle forced herself to keep her eyes open for as long as she could just in case she experienced her last moments alive.

The events of the past three hours once more flashed before her eyes. She could still feel the violent jolts and hear the coughing and crying of the others trapped with her. She could still see the faces of the frightened men and women that had been etched onto her mind's eye; friends, acquaintances, random people off the street pushing and shoving to get into the storage room to have at least the tiniest chance of surviving. The shock and the despair that spread among them when it became obvious that it would not be enough was still tangible in her soul. The coughing, wheezing, choking and ultimately dying as the unseen enemy touched them all could still be felt in every fiber of her being.

Around her, the noises generated by the tandem rotors changed pitch. A shudder soon rippled through the helicopter as it took off from the makeshift landing site to head into the unknown. On the gurney, Danielle's eyes slipped shut, but the throbbing pulse point on the side of her neck proved that she was yet among the living - the sole on-site survivor of what was to be known as the Rockton Incident…