The cliche about being in the shower during a phone call turned out to be even more true about being in the shower during an alarm signalling the greatest catastrophe in human history.
Dr. Nicholas Ozark had constructed an instrument that would measure the growth of the synergistic field effect, and rigged it to set off a smoke alarm when it reached the tipping point. It took him a moment to realize what the sudden piercing electronic scream meant, and then he was frantically washing off soap suds before emerging to grab a towel off the rack and race into his bedroom. The alarm was sitting on top of a bookcase, and he spent a few frantic moments trying to figure out where the off switch was before he remembered that he hadn't included one. He finally silenced it by unplugging the power cord.
He didn't have a television set in his apartment, but he did have a computer with high speed internet, and he was soon streaming a cable news feed. It was maybe twenty minutes before eight in the morning when the first reports started coming in of people vanishing. It was five minutes before eight when his cell phone began to chime.
"Doctor Ozark, this is Brianna Kent."
Ozark was impressed. "Wow, you people do work fast."
"Remember, Doctor, we've been preparing for this moment for the last two months. Mr. Stonegal wants you in New York as soon as possible. He's arranged for your paper on the field effect to be presented to the editors of Nature today, along with a press release announcing your findings."
"Have you seen the news? There are aircraft crashing all over the world because their flight crews have disappeared. Couldn't you do anything about that?"
"We did what we could, Doctor, I assure you. Trying to figure out which pilots would be affected wasn't easy, and neither was trying to arrange for them to be paired with safe copilots. We've arranged for a private jet to take you from California to New York. It should be ready to leave in two hours. We'll be sending a chopper to your campus to pick you up. It'll land in midfield in the football stadium."
Ozark's mind was awhirl. It felt as though he had stepped into a clockwork mechanism. He had a feeling his life was about to become part of a machine being operated by Jonathan Stonegal. "Got you," he said. "Midfield in the football stadium in two hours. I'll be there."
"I'll see you when you get to New York. Goodbye, Doctor."
"Goodbye, Miss Kent."
After hanging up, he thought to himself, Well, I may not be as organized as Jonathan Stonegal, but at least I was able to do some planning. He and Jennie had agreed: when the balloon goes up, meet in my lab as soon as possible.
Ozark dressed, grabbed the suitcase he had packed beforehand, and was out the door by half past eight. He halted in front of his apartment house. The street was bumper-to-bumper, and there was a wrecked car a block and a half to his right.
Right. Ozark went back into his apartment and pulled his bike down from the wall, then wrestled it down the staircase and out the front door. I should have gone with a backpack, he thought as he tried to balance the suitcase on the handlebars.
Before he could begin peddling, his downstairs neighbor ran out of the building. "Nick! Have you seen Jeremy? I can't find him."
Jeremy was his neighbor's four-year-old son. Ozark felt like someone had just sucker-punched him. He closed his eyes and said, "I'm sorry, Carrie, I haven't seen him, but I'm sure he's all right."
"If you do, let me know, will you?"
"I will, Carrie."
He passed several other people, mostly women, walking around the street calling for missing children. Some of them had started conferring with each other, and were connecting the dots. He passed the wrecked car, and there was nobody in it. It had apparently drifted into a parked car on its right.
A man ran up to him. "Mister, I gotta get to the bus terminal! It's a matter of life and death!"
Ozark was going to refuse, but reconsidered. The lab was only a mile away, and the suitcase kept threatening to fall off the handlebars, and anyway it had wheels, so why bother with the bike? He stopped and said, "All right, just let me get the suitcase."
"Jesus, thanks, man! Thank you! Let me get your address!"
"Never mind, keep it," said Ozark. "Right now this bike is the least of my worries."
The man mounted the bike and rode off, and Ozark pulled the long handle out on his suitcase and began dragging it after him down the street.
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