When Dr. Richard Swett stepped into the police station that following morning, he was greeted by a cacophony of activity, people rushing in and out, and he could hear Sheriff Davis's loud voice carrying over all of the hub-bub. He could tell that he was giving out instructions of one sort or another, and he found it quite unusual the feverish intensity with which he was speaking; he was unable to determine what sort of instructions were being handed out though, as all voices stopped when Davis's eyes fell on him. He stared for a few moments, his mouth still open, but his body relaxed, and every contour of his frame shifted, the social nomes of the situation now irrevocably changed. Swett knew that he had just stepped in on something that he was not invited to, but as he stood there with the USGS maps in hand, looking about the faces of haggard, worn, but tough men who had turned to look at him, as Davis looked at him, he didn't really care.
"Dr. Swett, what can I do for you?" Davis asked him, his voice returned to its normal timbre and intensity.
Swett walked through the aisle that formed itself from the mass of men standing before Davis who were stepping out of his way. Swett laid the maps on the table before Davis, " I came to return the maps, and to show you the location we selected."
"Good, good.", Davis leaned down to look at the map on top of the pile. "Ah, the DDD. That's a good place, just a few miles west of Barken. Looks like you've triangulated yourself with Cherry, interesting. Well, that certainly is helpful. You may keep the maps, you will have more need of them at the moment than will I or my men. Besides, I have more anyway."
"What do you mean triangulated?" Swett asked.
"Oh, you've just positioned yourself at a right angle from our town and Cherry, nothing important," Davis waved off the question.
"So what's this about Cherry?" Swett studied Davis's face. He was hiding something that was for certain, and it was only their second day in town, not a good start.
"We're supposedly sister towns, but there is quite a rivalry between us, just trying to make sure no punks from Cherry try to pull any pranks on your project there, Dr. Swett," Davis replied candidly.
"Thank you for the concern, I must insist that nobody sets foot beyond the demarcated boundaries we've set up though," Dr. Swett rose up from the table, the maps in hand.
"Fair enough," Davis nodded. "Good luck with your work."
"Thank you, Sheriff." Swett turned from the table and began to walk out. Behind him the aisle began to close up, as men gathered around Davis again. Swett then turned and said, "Oh, one more thing."
The men step back aside, all looking at Swett again. Taking a closer look he noticed that Bill Budd was not among those present, an interesting development. Davis looked him in the face, his mouth set firm.
"Have you happened to see Jason Kubelik anytime recently, he didn't show up last night, or this morning. In fact I haven't seen him since I left your office yesterday."
Davis leaned to one side for a moment, and then replied, "He's staying with some friends at the moment. I'll have one of my boys give him word that you would like to see him."
"Thank you," Dr. Swett turned again, and walked out of the building, and made his way down the street. On a whim, he began to walk down a side street, he might as well use his free time this first morning to see the town a bit, the preliminary results wouldn't be coming in for a few more hours, and he really didn't have much to do until then.
The streets were pretty full of life, children out in the front lawn's playing, dogs romping around, in fact it looked like packs of dogs were often tearing around the neighbourhood. What's more none of them wore any leashes, collars, anything to identify their owners. As he moved away from the commercial section of the town, and into the residential, he noticed a slight change in flavour. The street he was on began to feel lifeless, and he could hear something happening down the road. He walked faster, amazed that he was actually the only one on that road, no dogs even. It was quite peculiar, a mystery no less, and the one thing he hated most of all was mysteries.
He walked down the road, trying to find the source of the sound he was hearing. As he drew nearer, he could see some people standing behind one of the houses to his left. Crossing the street, he tried to stay out of sight, but he kept his eyes on the proceedings. Standing behind this house with a false brick facade, was a whole family reunion! It looked like everyone from the street was there, as well as all the dogs, plus some rather unusual dogs for this clime, a Husky and a St. Bernard. As he looked to see what was about, it became evidentially clear. It was a funeral.
Looking at the line of mourners dressed in black dresses, all crying their eyes out, he saw that there was no reverend offering words of consolation, and that the hole they were digging had no headstone, and was quite too small for any human to have been placed in. Looking across the row of faces he saw Bill Budd among them, standing next to a sombre man who looked completely dejected, probably related to the deceased. On a sudden hunch he looked to see if Kubelik was in the group, but he didn't see hide nor hair of him.
It was only a few moments later when a young man brought out on a carpet the still body of a small Terrier, and the weeping increased threefold. Swett was stunned, they were holding a funeral service for a dog, and the whole neighbourhood showed up! What was this place? He'd never seen something this strange before. Then again he'd never been to small town America before either; for him it was the big cities, living out of an apartment, congested streets, inflated prices, but a whole lot of culture and people that hated your guts simply because you were in their way.
Swett noticed that a few of the dogs attending the funeral service - attending, what a strange way to think about that - were now looking over in his general direction, so he scooted along, unable to shake the image of a dog being lowered into the pit, and the shovels starting to cover him up. As he turned to take one last look, he saw that they were putting a plant over top of the dog's gravesite. Plant would survive for a time, soil wasn't that good, but the dead body would add a lot of nutrients to the soil, and constant watering would keep it alive for a good time, but like everything else in the desert, it would soon be put in its place.
The preliminary results were much the same from all four test sites. Dry earth, an average saline content for this region, little or no moisture throughout much of the sample, though there was a very lively bacterial population living amongst the granule crystals in the soil. It was not completely unusual, though for this region it was well above normal expectations, it was a wonder there was anybody living here given the nature of the bacteria, staphylococcus in large numbers, plus a variety of other microscopic denizens.
As for the seeding of the grounds, it was a success, though they had overestimated the amount of the experimental formula they would have needed. They each had set up several recording stations from which they would take samples at regular intervals during the day, and once during the night hours. The first results after the seeding were, as expected, trivial changes, easily attributable to non-experimental factors. All of them were there of course, except Dr. Nelson, who was still out patrolling the grounds, and would be into the night, when they would each take turns doing the job. Nelson was a scientist like the rest of them, but he was a wildlife scientist more than anything else, and his research on this project would be much in the same vein as Dr. Karpan's, researching the effects the solutions have on the wildlife in the area. His job at the moment was to simply make sure that no humans got on the property, as they were more than likely the ones who would screw things up.
As for Dr. Karpan, he had set up some sonar devices, meant to detect movement by local wildlife, and a few infrared scanners, which while useless during the day were wonderful to see the nightlife of the desert which is quite active. His estimates showed on average, typical activity for the creatures he'd encountered, various snakes, and insects of all kinds, though no mammals as of yet.
For Dr. Swett, it was his time to relax and think things through. the experiments were running smoothly. He had to divest himself of all thoughts of odd activities within the town. It would be completely unprofessional were he to absorb himself in the intricacies of the Barken town life, and therefore fail to keep the project on schedule and moving.
However, as he slept that night, he kept seeing that funeral procession, seeing that dog being laid down in its grave, he felt as if the distance between him and that dog has suddenly become increasingly short. He was standing there among them, all faces turned on him, each of them looking at him, as if he could do something to fix the problem. He looked down there at the dog lying on the blanket as the young man placed it in the grave, stared into its eyes, and for a moment he thought he could see himself, as if he were looking back out of its dead eyes at himself.
As he continued to watch, he saw three figures solemnly begin to shovel the dirt over the still body of the Terrier. He looked at their faces, it was Obermeyer, Schwarz, and Karpan. They paid him no heed, as they each piled a layer of dirt upon the still body. Looking behind them he saw Nelson carrying the plant, ready to plant it. He then looked to the mourners, and he saw Olympia crying along with them. He turned once again, and there was Mullins being comforted by that officer Bill Budd. Turning he saw the face of Kubelik affixed to one of the dogs, who was moaning over the loss of a packmate. Rehberger was there too, he was the reverend reciting Biblical passages over the deceased animal - funny, there hadn't been a preacher at the real funeral.
Then, the plant firmly placed in the ground, all the figures turned once again to face him, the dog buried, and the blanket it had laid on in his hands. The figures of his fellow scientists all crowded around him, and they pushed him to the ground, all of them chanting something, he couldn't tell what. He tried to struggle, but he felt his arms locked tightly about his body, and he felt a general stiffness throughout every fibre of his essence. Suddenly he realized what was happening, he was being buried, and as he watched, Obermeyer, Schwarz, and Karpan began to pile heaps of dirt on his chest. He tried to shout out, tried to say something, but nothing came out. All he could hear was the weeping of the mourners, and the incessant chanting that he couldn't make out.
Finally, the dirt covered his eyes, and he expected them to sting, but he felt no pain. He could no longer see the dirt piling on top of him, but he could sense that it was growing deeper. After a few moments, the initial shock left him, and he could see a glimmer of light forming as if from a distance but right in front of him. It got brighter, and brighter, and he felt a desire to reach out and touch it, to step into it; all he could think of though was some silly movie he'd seen a long time ago, " Step into the light Carol Ann!", or something. Though he could not feel himself moving, he saw a ghastly spectre of his arm reach out towards the light, and he felt himself heading towards it, it in all its beautiful glory, the final resting place, a place of comfort, where there would be no gnashing of teeth.
Then suddenly the light turned red, and he could feel it flow about him, thick, crimson, and quite viscous. It was of a thinner consistency than ketchup, it reminded him more every passing moment, of blood. He tried to coolly rationalize the situation, which generally worked in some of his unusual dreams, but he could find no reasonable explanation for it. Then with a flash he was back at the funeral scene looking out in all directions as people and dogs stared on. With that image, he woke.
Climbing out of his bunk in the mobile laboratory, he walked over towards the front door. It was locked form the inside, but he was simply not thinking at the moment, so he opened the door up and stood there in the cool night breeze. He pulled out a cigarette and casually lit it. He was trying to break the habit of smoking, but every now and then he liked to taste one rolling about between his lips and teeth. Standing in the doorway, he looked at the sky, the bright stars, the cloudless night, and sighed. It took him only a few minutes before he smoked the cigarette, then he ground the end into the dirt, and walked back in, re-locking the door as he went. He climbed back in bed, barely noticing that the bunk beside him was empty - Kubelik's?, Mullins who had perimeter duty tonight?, he wasn't really sure. With that thought, he hit the pillow again and was asleep.
Randy Kempe was not happy. He laid down on the far side of Highway Hill, so named because Highway 45 ran beside it, and looked through his field glasses once again. He saw bright lights, and furious activity, especially around the local church, in Cherry. This was highly unusual, especially for Cherry, and especially at one in the morning. He had seen something like this only once before, and that had been ten years ago, just before a massive effort was made to wipe Barken off the map by the most fervent. Eddie Jones had led that group, and it had fortunately proved to be a disaster according to Cherry scale, only four Barken residents had been killed, and all but Eddie had died in their attack, over half of the kills made by Randy himself.
Now the town of Cherry was having another late night congregation, with folks getting rowdy, and he could see some of the residents toting their weapons. This was not good. This was not good at all...