The first and most obvious sign of trouble was the trees. The trunks were charred black from the ground up to three meters, above which the bark appeared normal in every way, forming a strict border. Valentine spun in a circle. The whole forest was like that, burnt below three meters, straight and flat as far she cared to measure.
“How far out does it go?” she asked.
“Six kilometers in every direction.”
“Take me to the boundary.”
He showed her the edge. The forest continued as far as she could see with a broadly curving line separating the normal trees from their burnt sisters. One tree straddled the boundary. The char lines stopped halfway through the trunk, forming a right angle three meters up. Valentine walked up to it and ran her hand down the blackened trunk. It was cold, and smooth as polished glass with hardened pieces of bark forming razor sharp edges like ocean waves flash frozen.
“Give me smell,” she said. It was unpleasant and artificial, like latex and grape cough syrup, and it only raised more questions.
Valentine walked along the border looking for abnormalities until she heard a high-pitched and unsteady whine somewhere up ahead. She took off jogging toward the sound which grew more guttural as she approached until she reached its source. A fawn lay on its side a few meters from the affected zone. It must have been on the boundary line when it happened. Its hindquarters were solid and black as obsidian, same as the trees. It must have dragged itself forward with its front legs, but there was no point; it wouldn’t live. Valentine couldn’t do anything for it.
“Take me to the body,” she said, and she was transported again.
There was a dead man in a shallow crater, maybe half a meter deep and two meters across. The ground here was not the soil and detritus of the forest floor, but a uniform granular white silicate, except in the center where it had absorbed the blood. The man was missing his head and left arm, but the rest of his form was stiff in an unnatural way—his clothes, too. It looked as if he’d been doused in liquid nitrogen in a standing position and then toppled over. The edges of his neck and left shoulder were jagged like broken glass. As far as corpses went, this one was only a four on her gruesome scale.
“And this is the epicenter?” she asked.
Valentine climbed down into the crater, the silicate feeling loose beneath her feet. The man wasn’t dressed for the terrain at all; a white button-down, pressed, by the looks of the crisp line running down the one remaining sleeve—which wasn’t even rolled up, still buttoned at the cuff—a slim gray herringbone tie clipped neatly to the shirt, charcoal slacks, and black oxfords looking new and polished. It struck her that his body hadn’t blackened like the trees and the fawn, but did still solidify. His right hand was balled and close to his chest. She leaned in closer.
She contorted her head, trying to peek between his pale fingers. He was holding…something. “Alright, I’ve seen enough. Take me out.”
The world snapped into darkness and she had a momentary sense of falling until the lights brightened from dim orange points to daylight-blue luminescence. She sat up on her elbows and waited for the dizziness to pass. “Can’t help you,” she said.
The intercom clicked. “What do you mean?”
“Something spooked your spook. It’s not my department.”
“No. Not my clown, not my circus. Your boy decimated the place himself. Clean up your own mess.”
“Valentine, he’s not ours.” She’d never heard that particular tone in his voice before. Panic? Just a hint.
“White guy in a tie in the middle of a disaster of his own creation; it’s got your fingerprints all over it.” She got to her feet and removed the wire leads from her temples and neck. “Nothing scarier than a white guy in a tie; I don’t know how many times I have to say it.”
“Thank you for your time.” There was that tone again. Not quite panic—uncertainty maybe. It’s what bothered her most about the entire exercise: it seemed genuine.
“He’s holding something,” she said. “Check his hand. Good luck.” She walked out the door, pulling it softly closed behind her.