The earthquake struck two hours before sunrise, extremely powerful, but didn’t last long, about seven seconds. All the night creatures were ripped from their routine, the day creatures torn from their sleep. A collective fear swept through the animals, from the insects to the reptiles to the mammals. An abominable, unfamiliar danger had risen from the elements, effecting the earth at its very nerves. If they could only speak, they would have moved into the cities to warn mankind. But they were far too frightened, petrified by a thing older than life itself, something set in place before the dirt was formed, a waiting seed of flowering ruin.
The main force of the quake was concentrated to only a few hundred acres, but its strength rippled outward for hundreds of miles. Moderate tremors were felt in population centers as far apart as Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Albuquerque. But seismographs indicated that the quake’s epicenter was at Four Corners, a remote terrain of plateaus and mountains where the states lines of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah converge.
Farmington, New Mexico, was the only city inside the Four Corners region, just fifty miles east of the actual Corners monument. A population of 50,000 violently jolted from their sleep. The damage in Farmington was pretty bad, but not catastrophic, not even extreme. A few dozen injuries were reported with only two fatalities. An elderly man at a nursing home fell and hit his head on a toilet rim. And a student at San Juan University, stumbling home drunk with friends, had climbed a eucalyptus tree on a dare, only to be knocked from its upper branches when the quake hit.
Property damage would be the biggest concern, at least for a little while. The value of property would soon to be drastically altered, currency itself becoming utterly worthless. However, as a whole, even before sunrise that morning, it was quickly surmised that the infrastructure of Farmington was still well intact.
Eric Salvera was a helicopter pilot at the New Mexico State Police Barracks in Farmington, a twelve year veteran of the department who had flown numerous combat missions in the Army. He’d been sleeping when the quake hit. Within minutes a call came from the capital; Santa Fe was ordering a flight out to Four Corners for observation.
“We’re in Four Corners,” replied Salvera to his superior, Captain Basil Waxham.
“They want someone to fly out to the Corners,” said Waxham, shrugging. “Seems it's really bad out there.”
“So, what if it is?” said Salvera, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “There’s nothing out there but strip mines and the Navajo Tribe, and they probably like this kind’a stuff. Give’m an excuse to rattle their bones and howl at the moon in the daylight hours. Lots'a tourist dollars for that.”
“Well, they're saying it’s off the Richter scale, and they want someone to go take a look. So take Chance and Meaks and get on out there. With luck, you’ll get there just before sunrise. Video whatever you see, then head on back, pronto. I’m gonna need ya back here, man. Long day ahead of us. Three-seventy-one over the river's been shut down, an' come daylight it's gonna be nuts.”
“Off the Richter scale?" balked Salvera. "But it wasn't that bad. Couldn’t have been more than a five-eight.”
“Not here, Eric,” said Waxham, walking backwards away from Salvera, his features looking animated as he pointed west. “Out there at the Corners. The readings out there are off the charts, so get go’n and hurry back. More than likely it’s a screwed-up sensor, but this comes from the top. So please, get up in the air asap.”
Fifteen minutes later, Salvera lifted off with Steve Chance, his 23-year-old flight engineer, and Carl Meaks, a former pilot turned observer because he had bad eyes. Meaks was an old-timer who was also a veteran, a Marine chopper pilot who was shot down twice in Vietnam. Five years earlier he failed his annual eye exam. When given a choice between regular highway patrol and a desk job, he threatened to quit and start flying dope into the country from Mexico. The next day he was made an official observer, but always had to sit in the back.
“Never heard of a quake being off the Richter scale,” said Chance as they took a heading west by northwest out of Farmington. “Have you, Carl?”
“Hell, no. Some pencil-neck suit-monkey probably used those words when he spoke to the governor. Got us on a wild goose chase, if you ask me. We ought’a be back in the city. I wanna see the damage. Basil should’a sent Perkins or Vasquez out on this nonsense.”
Less than a half-hour after leaving Farmington, Salvera noticed his navigational instruments were malfunctioning. He was flying okay, but his altitude readout was spinning, something he’d never seen before.
Dawn would soon break on the eastern horizon, but for now it was still very dark. Meaks and Chance were each looking through binoculars in a vain attempt to discern any tell-tale signs of the quake a thousand feet below.
“What the hell is that?!” gasped Chance, suddenly. He was seated just to the right of Salvera, looking straight ahead through his Celestron Skymaster, a high-end piece of hardware he bought with his own money. In unison, Meaks and Salvera glanced at Chance, noticing the young man slowly tilting his head back, moving his view upward. “HOLY MOTHER!!”
Suddenly the helicopter lurched violently to the left, dipping downward in a gyrating tailspin, thrashing the men against the straps that held them.
“WE HIT SOMETHING!!” screamed Salvera as the world spun around them in circles. Trapped in a dizzying spiral, the helicopter slammed into the ridge of a plateau, exploding into a large rolling fireball.
Faraway on another ridge, a huge shadow was cast by the fire against the rocks, stretching upward beyond the limit of the cliff, seeming to reach the stars.
Back at the barracks in Farmington, Salvera’s last words were heard with chilling clarity. And though the New Mexico State Police were already very busy, they now had another equally important mission; learning the fate of the helicopter that was sent to Four Corners.
Seventy miles northwest of Farmington, just across the Corners into Utah, San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Bluecoat was standing next to his cruiser looking up at the sky. He too had been asleep when the earthquake hit, dozing behind the wheel for a few minutes while parked on County Road 474, a lonely stretch of asphalt ten miles from the Corners.
Bluecoat was a full-blooded Navajo who’d lived in the region all his life. His third great-grandfather had been a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War, taking the name as a point of honor.
After hearing something on the radio about a police helicopter crashing on the New Mexico side, he keyed his mic and calmly spoke. “I see something really big in the sky, on the horizon. It’s huge. Never seen it before. It's silhouetted by the stars. Looks like a monster.”
Blake Strickland was also a helicopter pilot, but he flew for KOB 4 Eyewitness News. As the sky purpled to the east, he took the same heading the doomed police helicopter had taken just fifty minutes earlier. Also along for the ride were camera man Ricky Thurman and their front girl, Sara Vosler, a little hottie who’d been pulling some high ratings since joining the crew last year, fresh out of UNM.
“How well did you know the pilot, Blake?” asked Vosler, her eyes still puffy from sleep, yet still quite striking in anyone else's eyes.
“Knew’m pretty good,” replied Strickland. “He was the best in the area, in my opinion. Whatever happened, I seriously doubt it was pilot error.”
A quarter-mile ahead of them was another helicopter from the state police, its multiple running lights clearly visible against the still westering darkness. For the next twenty minutes they listened to the chatter on the radio, the terrain below them bluing gray as morning broke across Four Corners.
Thurman was sitting in back holding his camera, looking forward through the lens when something strange came into view. Startled at its size, he looked up away from the camera. At that moment they heard a clear voice on the radio, someone in the other helicopter saying, “My God, look at this!”
“What the hell?!” gasped Strickland, his eyes adjusting to something gigantic ahead, hidden in plain sight yet still miles away.
"You guys stay back!" came the voice over the radio. "This air space is being restricted!"
“IT’S A BIG IRON TREE!” blurted Vosler. Next to her, Strickland began banking hard to the left, Thuman twisting his body to pan right with his camera. Maintaining his distance, Strickland brought the helicopter around in a wide circle as the thing came back into full view.
In the dawn twilight, a massive, iron-looking, tree-like protrusion was seen rising up out of the earth reaching thousands of feet into the air, clearly visible for miles. A spiral line appearing to be a ledge of steps wound up its trunk, which was slightly bowed at center, topped with a canopy of sharp, jagged projections.
Far off in the distance, the running lights of more helicopters were seen coming from all directions, authorities and news affiliates from the other three states.
Vosler’s moniker stuck, and soon “Iron Tree” was heard echoing over the airwaves. The whole world began to watch in awe as every channel showed chilling images of the thing looming over the majestic landscape of Four Corners.
As the rising sun glinted off its steely surface, vague nuances of movement could be seen within the canopy. One couldn’t help but notice Iron Tree having an aspect of both organic and intelligent design.
Doctor Lindsay Cianfrini was late for work, something the CDC normally frowned on. But she was a young, standout postdoc who’d been a captain in the U. S. Air Force Medical Corps, recently completing a two-year fellowship at Emory, specializing in molecular epidemiology and biostatistics. Other than her occasional tardiness, her record was impeccable. And at 29, with subtle yet compelling good looks, she was definitely a keeper.
During her drive to work she heard on the radio that a powerful earthquake had hit somewhere out West. But she put on some classical music to help combat the nerve-shredding Atlanta traffic. When she finally got to her subterranean office at the Department of Disease Demographics, she heard that the earthquake had been at Four Corners. As a teenager Lindsay had gone to Four Corners vacationing with her family. They’d had a good time, she recalled, meeting various members of the different Native American tribes that held the remote region. She'd even had her picture taken while sitting cross legged on the little monument there, grinning as her butt touched the corner of each state.
As she settled in, Lindsay overheard a few colleagues nattering about the quake, something about it being so strong it was off the Richter scale, yet short and confined to a relatively small area. Then she noticed her two superiors approaching, both looking a bit distressed. At first she expected them to complain that she’d been late again, but they hurriedly motioned for her to follow them. As she walked off she heard another colleague say, “Something’s busted up out'a the ground,” but didn’t give it much thought at the time.
The three doctors went to a special room designed for fastrack observation of highly dangerous microbes. A series of large computer monitors hung on a wall lined with several desks, chairs, keypads and a broad compendium of books.
“Doctor Cianfrini,” said Dr. Ashwin Abhinav, a Bangali immigrant who was one of the world’s top specialists in their field, “there is something I want you to see.”
Abhinav and his immediate second, Dr. Carl Bettroff, explained to Lindsay that a man in Lisbon, Portugal, had just been diagnosed with Ebola. The man, a registered nurse, had spent two months as a volunteer health care worker in Sierra Leon. Less than 24 hours ago, he had returned to his home in Portugal and noticed a fever, then reported to his hospital in Lisbon. After being quarantined, blood samples were taken. Strangely, within just a few hours it was confirmed that he was infected with the Ebola virus. Enhanced microscopic images of the man’s blood samples were being emailed top-priority-classified to the CDC from the World Heath Organisation.
“We’ve been told,” said Abhinav, “that appendages are visible on this microbe.”
“Are you sure?” asked Lindsay with genuine concern.
“Well, we haven’t seen the samples yet,” replied Bettroff, “but let’s hope they simply contaminated them by accident in Lisbon.”
“Yes,” said Abhinav, punching buttons at a terminal. “Should be here by now.”
While the doctors conferred around a terminal, they were repeatedly distracted by a slight commotion outside the room, a buzz that seemed rather intriguing. At one point, Bettroff stepped out to see what the matter was.
“My God!” he gasped, returning to the room seconds later, quickly moving to turn on a television monitor. “Look at this! It’s from that earthquake!”
Just as the computer image of the Ebola microbe appeared, a large plasma screen to their left revealed its own chilling image. News footage from an affiliate in Farmington, New Mexico, showed something that looked like a massive iron tree jutting up from out of the ground. At least five helicopters could be seen circling at a distance, utterly dwarfed by the thing, which had been dubbed “Iron Tree” by the different news crews, displayed in bold letters at the bottom of the screen.
“This thing is gigantic!” said the voice of an unseen female reporter from inside a helicopter, Iron Tree looming miles away. “Just to give you an idea of how big this thing is…..” Sara Vosler suddenly leaned into view wearing a mic and headset, jerking her thumb at Iron Tree in the background, visual illusion equalizing their size. “We're at least five miles from that thing, whatever it is. And we can’t get any closer because authorities have……”
Forgetting their work, all three doctors watched the news, mesmerized by what they saw. Estimated to stand well over a mile high, with a trunk at least 200 meters thick, it somewhat resembled a titanic palm tree. The view zoomed in on Iron Tree’s base, strewn with building-size chunks of the plateau it broke through, smoke rising from its perimeter.
While her superiors were distracted by the bizarre news, Lindsay glanced at the computer image of the Ebola microbe. She quickly noticed something highlighted by one the doctors in Portugal. Looking carefully, she enhanced the highlighted portion. What she saw caused her hands to tremble. Dozens, possibly hundreds of appendages were clearly visible on the microbe.
“Doctors!” she said in a loud voice, selecting one of the appendages to enhance further.
The two men turned, slightly embarrassed. Immediately they noticed the appendage and gathered round their young subordinate.
“This is bad,” said Abhibav, slowly shaking his head, normally calm to a fault. “Very, very bad.”
“Oh my, God,” hissed Bettroff. “It’s gone airborne.”
Lindsay was silent, her two superiors still babbling beside her. She then got the appendage to full enhancement and suddenly all three are speechless, glancing back and forth between the computer monitor and the television screen. With forensic precision, every line, every angle, every curve; the deadly appendage was an exact microscopic duplicate of the colossal Iron Tree that just busted up though a plateau at Four Corners.
After a few moments, Abhinav pulled out his phone to call his superior, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
But it is far too late. “Exbola,” as it will soon be called, was already circling the globe. As contagious as the common cold, the disease was spreading unchecked through the world’s airports, growing exponentially in cities everywhere.
In less than 24 hours, two-thirds of the hospital, including visitors, where the strain was first detected in Portugal, were running a high fever. Evidence of Lindsay Cianfrini’s discovery was soon leaked to the press, side-by-side images of the new Exbola microbe and Iron Tree gone viral.
Even a simple-minded moron could see the uncanny resemblance.
A world already reeling from the sudden appearance of Iron Tree, was now torn asunder with panic and trigger-happiness. Borders and airports were closed everywhere, martial law governing on a global scale. But man's attempt to control the inevitable did little good. Exbola was in charge, and chaos was rampant.
Tougher and meaner than its predecessor, the new microbe lives outside a host for days, hanging out anywhere people breathe air, killing within a week. Serums produced from blood plasma of Ebola survivors did little but prolong the ghastly inevitable: a hot blood and pus liquefaction from the inside out.
Hospitals were more than overwhelmed, they were broken. Respirators were worn by all, as piles of burning bodies lined the streets, society coming apart at its hinges.
Eventually even the most sophisticated militaries broke down, structure of command fracturing. Just two weeks after its discovery, an estimated half-million were dying hourly worldwide. And it was still just the beginning.
Four Corners was ironically the most orderly place on the planet. A perimeter had been set up by the U. S. Air Force, as official observation and analysis began, smoke still rising from Iron Tree’s base.
It was soon learned that some type of anti-metallic force field surrounded Iron Tree. Except for aluminum, it violently repelled all metal from a distance of about one kilometer. This explained what happened to the first helicopter, which crashed less than a mile away.
The force field was discovered when an armed close observation patrol was sent in from two miles out. The mission was going well, the five-man team jogging in cover-cover formation across the treacherous ground. Video and audio were played back to a command center set up on a bluff that looked out on Iron Tree like a carnival sideshow. Suddenly there was lots of screaming, four of the five monitors at the CC turning to static and snow.
Only one man was uninjured and still had lights and sound. He’d been covering the rear when all the noise began, then came upon his comrades all bunched together in one spot on the ground. One man choked up blood. Another man bled profusely from his shoulder. While yet another bled from his left ass cheek. The fourth man seemed to have simply been knocked violently to the ground, but had the wherewithal to hold up his hand motioning for the last man to stop.
The man choking up blood died. Fillings from his back teeth had been pulled loose and ripped through his neck. A small bullet fragment from Iraq seven years earlier had been yanked from one man’s shoulder. Two tiny pieces of shrapnel acquired in Afghanistan had been expelled from the other man’s butt. The fourth man had no metal in his body, he’d just run into his weapon as it hit the force field, along with the many other metal items on his person. All electronic equipment that came in contact with the force field was rendered inoperable, and began to malfunction in varying degrees from as close as ten meters.
Although a strange hypnotic hum was heard on the other side, as long as a man had no metal on, or in his person, he could traverse the force field with no noticeable ill-effects. This was only certain of the first twenty meters, the furthest anyone had gone until a second patrol was sent in all the way to Iron Tree.
"You nervous?" asked Staff Sergeant James Kendrick, carefully inspecting his gear, assuring he had no metal, not even a paperclip.
Tech Sergeant Michael Tyrio nodded, saying nothing as he cinched up a 100 foot rope around his shoulder and torso.
"Since we're not wear'n watches," said Master Sergeant Keven Lovett, "a horn's gonna blast a signal every fifteen minutes from the CC"
Besides rope, each man had a 30-inch aluminum pry hammer, and a razor-sharp, 12-inch aluminum K-bar, plus a neoprene rucksack packed with an assortment of other aluminum tools. They each wore goggles to protect their eyes. Winds kicked up sand around the base of Iron Tree and visibility was limited on the ground.
"We're not mess'n 'round in there," ordered Lovett in a sure, calm voice. "Command wants us back in one hour. Just gonna a take quick look-see, then head on back. When we hear that third blast, no matter what, we're kick'n it out'a there. Got it?"
Tyrio and Kendrick nodded in unison, neither taking his eyes off their work, hands working fast, deftly checking to see that everything was secure.
They were all U.S. Air Force Special Ops with over three decades of elite training between them. A twelve-man support unit stood by waiting at the edge of the non-metallic zone. A new CC had been set up about 100 meters away.
"Hurry back," said a young lieutenant just before the three airmen jogged off into to the unknown, entering a presence more than twice that of the world's tallest building.
Seconds after the team set out, an eerie greenish-orange glow pulsated from the cloud of sand as they disappeared into it. This instantly cued a low primeval moan felt deep in a man’s gut. Exactly how long this lasted was uncertain. Even the different times kept at the CC varied. Some said hours. Some said minutes. However, all the men who had waited at the edge of the force field said it could not have been more than two minutes.
As soon as the weird glow stopped, the moaning faded. For a few short seconds all a man could hear was the wind, and all he could see through the billowing swell of sand was the monstrous, towering figure of Iron Tree. Suddenly, one member of the team reemerged from the reddish-brown swirl of sand clouds, materializing specter-like out of the shrouded wall of elements. Shuffling stiff and slow, his arms were folded in front carrying something small, an infant boy.
The man who’d returned less than three minutes after he left, (an unconfirmed yet agreed upon time), was Staff Sergeant Kendrick, age 28. He now looked well passed 90. The infant he carried was his superior, (later confirmed by DNA), Master Sergeant Lovett, age 35. Tech Sergeant Tyrio, age 30, was unaccounted for, last seen by the staff sergeant climbing the meter-wide spiral of steps that wound up the oblong trunk of Iron Tree.
A battery of tests were run on Kendrick and the Lovet. The master sergeant had obviously aged backward, stricken by what doctors called Merlin’s sickness. The tech sergeant suffered from dementia and was quite frail. At times he seemed somewhat normal, recognizing friends, even saying things that made sense. But then he’d fly into a rage, wanting to know why help hadn’t been sent.
“The triangles went cold!” he would scream. “Sooo damn cold!” Hours of debriefing were documented with the staff sergeant, a verbal labyrinth of distorted vernaculars, all of it highly classified.
All that could be determined from Kendrick's story made little sense, but not much did lately.
When the three men had gotten to Iron Tree, they'd had crawl up a large mound of debris before finding a natural platform of rock and sand near the steps. Then Lovett reached out and touched the thing. At that moment, a small hole of some sort opened. Then, like something out of the Book of Daniel, an arm-less human hand floated out, its index finger the only digit extended. The hand hovered in midair for a moment, the three airmen gazing at it in terror. Then it quickly moved to Lovett, jabbing the man in the chest. Lovett fell backwards on the sand, limp, quivering and unconscious. Then the hand pivoted slowly toward Kendrick, darting at the staff sergeant with blinding speed, tapping him in the center of the forehead. The next thing Kendrick remembered was finding the infant Lovett, squirming and crying in the extra large jumpsuit. As he'd picked up the child, he looked to his right. Tyrio was mounting the first step of Iron Tree, the hand at his back like a gun.
In his last interview Kendrick sat motionless, staring straight ahead with a blank expression on his face. Two officers, a major and a colonel he'd known for years, and a CIA operative politely asked him questions for over an hour, getting nothing in response. Just as they were ending the interview, Kendrick looked up at them, his eyes suddenly lucid and clear. “It’s a museum, you know.”
"It seems that Sergeants Kendrick, Tyrio and Lovett actually made it all the way to Iron Tree," said Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Shaver, commander of Air Force Spec Op Expeditionary Group One, an elite team of commandos that was unknown to even the president.
"That seems physically impossible," replied Daren Tanner, Deputy Director of the CIA. "I'm told they were gone only two minutes."
"Are you serious, Daren?!" balked Shaver's superior, Brigadier General Raymond Keats, motioning with his hands. "Look out the window, man. That thing's three times the size of the Empire State Building, for Christsake! It just busted up out'a the earth like a stripper out of a cake at a stag party! AND, it's seems to have brought with it a disease that's killed over billion people in just twenty-five days."
"What about Tech Sergeant Tyrio?" asked Tanner, looking at Iron Tree through the window of their temporary building. He had to crane his neck down and to the left to take in its full majesty, one mile away. "Is he listed as AWOL of MIA?"
"Michael Tyrio is not AWOL!" growled Shaver. "He's currently listed MIA."
"But you know where he is," said Tanner glancing back at Shaver. "I understand you have a visual on him climbing the steps of that thing."
"We have a visual on someone," corrected Keats. "Yes, it very well could be Technical Sergeant Michael Tyrio. But that has not been confirmed."
"Visibility is still very limited because of the sand cloud," said Shaver, standing to also look out the window. "Whoever it is, once they get a little higher will be able to tell for sure if it's Tyrio."
As the world fell apart, ravaged by Exbola and the mass havoc it caused, word began to spread of a place that did not have the disease. It was even said that an infected person could be cured there. Simply go and be there and the hideous Exbola was gone. Such myths are often born of hysteria, with only a few buying into the fabled illusion.
But when people heard the name of the place, knowing what was there, the largest human migration in history began. Trains, boats and planes bulged to capacity as all that was left of humanity moved, letting nothing but death stop them because death was what they fled. They ran, walked and crawled, arriving in plethora and the Four Corners to stand in the gothic presence of Iron Tree.