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Patchwork World: A Niche in Time


Rodford Edmiston

12 miles south of the Kentucky/Tennessee border, heading north on I 75

     "How much longer?" asked, Cindy, the twelve year old, not quite whining.

     "Yeah, Dad, if you hadn't made us stop for supper early we'd be there by now," Bobby, who was fourteen, piped in.

     "Robert, if you hadn't delayed us we would be there by now," said Jim, firmly, though with some exaggeration. He glanced over at his wife Linda, who rolled her eyes and smiled.

     Jim smiled too. Despite being behind schedule and the kids' complaints he was feeling content; this Independence Day weekend had been good for all of them.

     "Look, kids, see that sign?" said Linda, pointing. "We'll be back in Kentucky in just a few more minutes."

     Jim reached over and patted her on the leg. Despite Bobby's recent entrance into the world of raging hormones and Cindy showing signs of joining him, they were good kids. And Linda was a good mother. Sometimes Jim wondered how he had wound up so lucky. Of course, part of that was simple good planning. Like the light traffic they were experiencing. Most people had headed home Sunday, but Jim's family had stayed an extra night, taking their time in returning home from Knoxville. This let the Burton family avoid the rush, and have plenty of time to stop on the way for meals and sightseeing. Except that at two of their stops - one of them at a rest area - Bobby had gone off somewhere and taken more than half an hour getting back. Both times he innocently claimed he had simply lost track of the time.

     They would still get home well before dark, though. Plenty of time to get settled in and have a full night's rest. Jim was actually looking forward to getting back to work. He had a good job, working as an architect for a Lexington construction firm. There was a minor boom in building going on, the economy was in good health, there were few problems in Jim's life.

     Oh, look, dear," said Linda, suddenly, raising her hand to point ahead of them. "Is that fog?"

     If so it was the strangest fog he had ever seen. Like a wall, it crossed the Interstate close ahead of them, extending to either side and up as far as Jim could see. It was a mere shimmer at first, though one sharply demarcated, but before they entered it had increased in density to the point that Jim could barely see the road ahead. A glance in the mirror showed Jim that some of the cars behind them were slowing, while two others continued on unchecked. Jim slowed and signaled, pulling onto the shoulder. He was too close to stop without locking the brakes, but he didn't want to just plow through whatever it was and neither did he want to get rear-ended by someone. They entered the fog at reduced speed... and Jim immediately knew that it wasn't fog.

     It swept through the car as if the glass and metal didn't exist, and as it passed through him Jim felt a strange, disconnected sensation. He knew then that it was some sort of barrier or energy field. And he knew that he didn't want to stay in it any longer than he had to. He put his foot down, and the Corolla surged ahead. The "fog" was still getting thicker, and there was a moment of resistance when Jim thought they might be caught... and then they burst through.

     Jim braked to a stop, still on the shoulder, and turned to look behind them. As he did so the first car which had been behind him went careening by, barely in control, weaving back and forth madly. Jim shook his head, not believing what he had seen; the driver had been wearing some kind of animal's head, a very realistic one! Strangely, the second car didn't appear, even though it had been following close behind. Jim hadn't heard the screech of sliding tires; how had it stopped so quickly?

     He looked farther back, to see that the "fog" was gone. And beyond it was forest. The road - four lanes of divided highway - simply ended a few meters behind them, about where the near side of that strange, misty barrier had been. Beyond that was a strip - about as wide as the barrier had been - of churned soil, and beyond that was heavy forest, like that bordering the Interstate.

     Jim reached for the stereo and punched the eject button, popping the cassette out, then turned up the volume. Nothing. They had been tuned to a Knoxville station. Jim punched the button for a powerful Lexington station. To his relief it came in fine.

     "Jim," said Linda, in a voice that dispelled his relief, "the children's eyes are grey!"

     He spun around to stare at her, and froze.

     "So are yours," he said, quietly. "Are mine...?"

     "Yes. Jim, what happened to us?"

     "I don't know," he replied. "Maybe that cloud was some sort of chemical spill, and it changed our eyes."

     Even as he said this he knew it wasn't true, but he didn't have a clue as to what had really happened. After a few minutes of checking to make sure that everyone was all right - with the exception of altered eye color - Jim decided that the best thing to do was to continue north.

     Linda worked the radio as they drove, going from station to station. Some of those programmed in - the more powerful Kentucky stations - could still be heard, as could many local ones. However, she couldn't pick up any of the Tennessee stations they had been listening to during their stay. They drove on for another quarter of an hour, as she alternately tuned local stations and used the buttons to check on familiar ones. There was an exit coming up; Jim had just decided to stop when he heard what sounded like part of a news broadcast.

     "Go back!"

     Linda was already reversing direction, and they heard:

     "...mysterious electrical blackouts in some areas. We are trying to reach someone with the electric utility, and will have them on the line as soon as we do. Meanwhile..."

     "That's a local station; in Williamsburg, I think."

     Jim nodded. The station went to music for a few minutes, the signal growing stronger and clearer as they continued north.

     "Another bizarre news item; a State Trooper reports stopping a speeding car on I 75, driven by - get this - a guy in a beaver costume. When asked to show identification, the driver yelled something unintelligible, shoved the Trooper to the ground and drove off. Police are advising motorists to watch for a brown two-door hatchback, possibly an Escort."

     On second thought, Jim decided not to stop at the next exit. The tank was nearly full; driving non-stop all the way home was probably a good idea, just in case there was more weirdness in this area.

     They learned more as they continued north. Something had isolated a big chunk of Kentucky, northern Tennessee and southern Indiana and Ohio from the rest of the world. There were no communications - no phone, or broadcast radio or TV, not even satellites - and the electrical grid had taken a major hit. The electric companies were asking industries to shut down until further notice to keep the remaining portion of the grid from collapsing. The Governor had already declared a state of emergency, and called out the National Guard.

     "Does that mean you'll have to go, Daddy?" asked Cindy, wide-eyed with concern.

     "No, dear; I'm in the Reserves. That's national, not state."

     "But he said the National Guard."

     Actually, Jim welcomed explaining that the Guard was national in scope but organized at a state level. It helped take his mind of what had happened to them.

     They made it back to their home without further incident. Linda took Cindy to open the door and get the mail and papers, while Jim and Bobby unloaded the trunk.

     "Hey, Dad! Look at this!" declared Bobby, excitedly pointing at the license plate.

     It was the wrong color, and the wrong pattern, and some of the letters had changed, looking like Arabic. Jim noticed that the car was no longer a Toyota Corolla; instead, it read "Nippon Virola Transport."

                    *                     *                     * Versailles, Kentucky

     Allison Fugate was outside, talking with a neighbor, when she saw the strange band of haze wrap itself around a portion of her block of houses. She turned and started hesitantly for her home, Susan's words trailing away as she, too, realized something strange was going on. She saw little Danny, looking scared, running for her from the other side of that rapidly growing haze. Allison was running too, now.

     She went into the haze, which not only had a physical resistance but gave her an odd, eerie sensation. She reached the middle about the same time as Danny, grabbed him, and turned to run back. Moving was becoming rapidly more difficult; for a moment she thought she and Danny were caught, but in a panicked burst of strength she surged back out, falling as she suddenly came free. She looked back into the fog, and gasped.

     It reached near-total opacity, then abruptly vanished. Where there had been a section of typical suburban neighborhood there were now strange structures, mostly hut-sized cylinders with domed roofs. Around this was a wide band of bare, churned earth. And standing around those structures, on thick grass where both lawns and streets had been, were odd-looking creatures, reminding Allison of bipedal dinosaurs, only these had large, domed heads and intelligent eyes. They seemed just as surprised at the situation as Allison.

     "Mommy, you hurt me," sniffed Danny.

     "It's all right, baby," said Allison, turning to her son... and gasped. Her formerly blond and blue-eyed son now had dark skin and eyes and high, Indian cheekbones. Allison noticed that her own skin also darker, though not her son's deep, chestnut brown...

                    *                     *                     * Munfordville, Kentucky

     It had been a bad day for Sarah Whittaker. On top of everything else, she had been made to work half an hour of overtime, to correct a mistake that hadn't even been hers. She was so distracted by her irritation that she didn't even notice the strange fog forming around several cars in the company parking lot - including hers - until she walked right into it.

     The weird feeling this produced shocked her back to reality, and she stopped, looking around, confused. She saw the fog, ringing a circle of cars and pavement centered a few meters away, and watched, stunned, as it thickened. Then, as the feeling of strangeness increased, she panicked, yelling and jumping backwards. Only she didn't clear of the fog with her leap, landing short. Sarah began scrabbling, shoving against the pavement with her feet, frantically backpedaling. She flailed her arms... and froze, as she saw the skin on them darken.

     Sarah screamed and threw herself out of the fog with a final, desperate lunge, falling to the pavement just outside the ring. She lay still for several long moments, as people gathered around her, babbling.

     "Why'd stupid look what she at do was her bitch hair/skin that..."

     The babbling continued, growing louder and more confused as more people crowded around her. Sarah, shocked and dazed by what had happened, put her hands over ears to try and keep the voices out, but that only helped a little. Growing more and more panicked by the increasing pressure of the voices she suddenly arched her back and screamed out in angry protest, "Shut up!!"

     There was a sudden, ringing quiet. Slowly, Sarah unwrapped her arms from her head and looked around. She was surrounded by over a dozen people, all collapsed on the ground.

                    *                     *                     * Northbound on I 65 out of Louisville

     Barry Frickert was heading back to Chicago after spending the holiday weekend with his family. It was a nice afternoon, a bit overcast but no real chance of rain. Then he noticed the odd wall of light grey ahead of him. Beyond was darkness. He could see water was running along the pavement from under that wall. Barry hit the brakes, stopping his Miata just short of the water. Unfortunately, the minivan behind him didn't stop quite that short. It rammed Barry's car, shoving it into the wall and beyond.

     Passing through the fog so quickly shocked Barry, confusing him. He was in a downpour, surrounded by a very heavy rain. Behind, through the thickening wall of fog, he could see sunlight. Reflexively, Barry shifted into reverse and floored the accelerator pedal, yanking the steering wheel hard over to avoid the minivan, which had stopped in the fog.

     He barely missed the larger vehicle; there was enough damage to his car to skew the tracking. He backed a few meters and stopped, shaking his head. Passing through the second time had been even worse. He felt strange, his vision was distorted. He shook his head again, and noticed an unfamiliar weight. Since when did he have long hair? Barry reached to turn off the ignition, and froze.

     He had claws. The tips just poked out of his fingertips, but they extended as he flexed his fingers. His hands and arms were also covered in fur, and leaner, almost gaunt. Then he began noticing differences in the car itself. Labels were in strange characters. The interior was a different color, and the seats differently shaped. The one on the right had a hole in it, between the back and the seat. Barry stopped and took a deep breath to steady himself... and was overwhelmed by a flood of scents.

     He had to get out. He turned and yanked at the door handle, jumping out of the car. He gave a yelp of pain as something caught and then pulled free. Turning to see what had happened, he realized that his tail (!) had been pulled through the hole in the back of his seat at a sharp angle by his reckless turn.

     Trying to get his mind away from what had happened to him, Barry looked at the minivan. Most of it was gone, only the back third remaining. Two people - a man and a teenage girl - stood beside the wreck, staring around in dazed fashion. Beyond them the road ended at a swath of plowed and disked soil, and beyond that was woods.

     Oddly, the man and girl were both feeling their own chests and crotches, the young woman rather vigorously fondling herself with one hand while grabbing between her legs with the other. The man was performing similar actions but more slowly, and seemed dazed where the girl seemed panicked. Barry approached them rather tentatively, noticing as he did so that his feet and legs bent strangely. The others looked up at him, startled but not frightened.

     "Wharrrt..." Barry coughed, and tried again. "Wharrt happened?"

     "I... I don't know," gasped the man. "I remember trying to stop, then hitting you, then we went in. The van wouldn't move, and Jimmy and I got out and ran back this way, and then the others..."

     "Jimmy?" asked Barry.

     "I'm a guy!" cried the girl.

     "And I'm his mother!" the man exclaimed.

     Barry took this in for several seconds, then timidly felt his crotch, not worrying about what the other two might think of this, since they were doing the same thing when he came up. He instantly came to the conclusion that whatever type of creature he had changed into, the females didn't have exaggerated breasts.

Some notes on the Tensor Fields

     Without outside influences they are cone-shaped, extending from a mathematical point at the Earth's core to an undetermined distance above the surface. Matter, gravity and magnetic fields affect them slightly, enough that the largest are distorted into other shapes. Things caught within a TF (Clever abbreviation, what?) are exchanged along reality lines. The smaller the cone, the larger the difference between what was there and what replaces it. At the boundary, the interference between former and present locations causes rapid and random side-slipping. The degree of slip depends on the size of the enclosed area (smaller causes more, due to the lessened distance available for dispersion of field strength) and how late the objects are in the boundary zone (eventually, the objects are completely randomized at the molecular level). Length of time spent inside a Zone is irrelevant to degree of change, except for how late it makes the exit.

     Note that direction of entrance is important for type of change but not degree. Entering partway and backing out causes the same change as passing all the way through. Going through twice (the effect lasts about fifteen seconds, so there's time) causes two, unrelated changes.

     Items which go through the same portion of a Barrier at the same time will experience the same change. Slight differences in time or place will still cause the same type of change.

     The world on the other side of the barrier will shift in random fashion continuously during the period of effect. This can be observed, but due to the distortion of light passing through the Barrier only clearly obvious differences will be noticed. Going through and back provides stronger evidence of this phenomenon, but there is a chance that someone who waits too long will lose the connection with their origin world. Fortunately, there is a sort of "Conservation of Change" which allows some flexibility. (Note Barry's case.)

     The majority of those changed do not get notably improved by the alterations. Most of those I write about are exceptions. I feel that they are more interesting. ;-)

This work is Copyright 1997 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing permission to repost or reprint should contact the author at: stickmaker@usa.net